Our traditional proclamation at the end of the Passover seder throughout our history was: “Next year in Jerusalem.” The courage to affirm life (our hope of returning to Jerusalem) in the face of the vulnerable condition of the Jewish people expresses the dialectical message of the redemption story. Never abandon belief in the possibilities of a new future in spite of the uncertainty and unpredictability of the human condition.
Our reading of the Exodus story includes the accidental and arbitrary within our celebration of the liberation from slavery. Faith in God need not entail the belief that history is moving inevitably toward redemption and the final resolution of human evil and suffering. Throughout the Passover seder we are told that tragic regressions can recur repeatedly in human history. There can be no assurance that the Hitlers of history have been permanently eliminated.
Our strength as a people lies in our capacity to celebrate our national renaissance while acknowledging that the Messiah has not arrived. In contrast to those in the haredi community who believe that only the realization of messianism would legitimate our national renaissance, I propose that messianism should be understood as a normative ideal rather than as a prediction about the future of Jewish history.
The integration of the Exodus and Sinai narratives shaped the historical consciousness of the Jewish people. They gave expression to our national identity as a free people and taught us to celebrate freedom with full awareness that “a new Pharaoh” could always arise and undermine our security and well being.
The memory of Egypt does not foster a naive belief in inevitable progress. The liberation from slavery does not culminate in the final resolution of human suffering and evil in history. Egypt points to Sinai where a people accepted the challenge of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Sinai used the historical motif of slavery to charge us with the task of becoming a light unto the nations.
Rather than becoming fixated on our memory of suffering in Egypt, Moses turned this memory into a catalyst urging us not to oppress the stranger but to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Lev. 19:33, Deut 10:19). Our suffering did not nurture eternal self-pity, but instead it inspired us to pursue higher moral standards of behavior. Moses taught us to aspire to become a covenantal people with the full awareness that undeserved suffering may never be totally eliminated from human history.
The fusion of Sinai and Egypt as national symbols fortified us against giving up belief in the possibilities of a new future. At Sinai we discovered who we were and what we were expected to become. We were a slave community charged with the task of embodying hope in our lives. A slave is a prisoner of the present moment. He has no history, no memory and no aspirations. In hearing the covenantal message at Sinai and in becoming a people of God, a community of former slaves accepted to believe in the possibility of change.
The Jewish people were taught their God was named ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be who I will be.” The God of Israel was not defined by the past. History, like life, is a process of becoming. This basic idea was implanted deeply into our souls when we became a nation at Sinai. Instead of reinforcing the tendency of persecuted communities to view themselves as eternal victims, Sinai infused our consciousness with the idea of being an elect community empowered by the vision of an open future.
At Sinai we pledged never to abandon history. As an elect covenantal people we were charged with the task of carrying the burden of God’s eternal hope for civilization. This hope was not born of naiveté but was informed by the memory of enslavement in Egypt. Belief in the possibility of evil in history was bound up with belief in the possibilities for love and justice. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and we were a free people defined by the divine message given at Sinai. The covenant taught us to reject belief in the depravity of human nature and to believe in the possibilities of moral renewal.
In the 20 th century, the Sinai component of our consciousness found expression in our people’s strength to establish the State of Israel. The founding of the State of Israel can be viewed as a Sinaitic normative moment in Jewish consciousness. It signifies our renewed commitment to remain in history, to resist historical despair and disillusionment and to bear witness to the significance of affirming life in the midst of uncertainty.
For many Jews, the State of Israel is a collective affirmation of our determination to be defined not by the gas chambers of Auschwitz but by the hope of rebuilding a new Jerusalem. We will always mourn for Auschwitz. We will never become reconciled with our people’s tragic suffering and losses. We will never forget how the homeland of Bach, Beethoven, and Kant became the homeland of Himmler, Eichmann, and Hitler, how the pride of Western music, poetry and philosophy became a synonym for barbarism and brutality.
Our return to Israel should be understood as a double affirmation: a “yes” to Egypt and a “yes” to Sinai. We will not forget Auschwitz but we will celebrate our new lives and hopes in Jerusalem. In returning to Israel we reaffirmed our determination not to withdraw from history but to continue believing in the possibilities of the future no matter how ambiguous, uncertain and precarious life is. We will not define our identity by our memories of suffering but by the moral spiritual quality of our daily lives.
The horror we feel when witnessing the brutality of terrorism must not lead to nihilism or negate the value of human efforts to build a just and peaceful world. Israel must bear witness to new possibilities and opportunities for peace in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. Despair and disillusionment are the refuge of the weak. It is a deep, characteristic Jewish impulse that was present throughout our history. Affirming life and the potential for moral renewal despite the precariousness of the human condition express the ongoing power and significance of the foundational memories of Sinai and the Exodus.