This week we celebrate the festival of Passover. If asked on the spot what the point of the holiday is, you would probably respond “to commemorate the redemption from Egyptian bondage.” This interaction is reenacted on the Seder night: The children ask why this night is different from other nights, and we quickly respond with “We were slaves in Egypt and our God redeemed us.” However, if the story is simply about a nation being freed from servitude, then we are left with a question: why did we have to leave Egypt?
The text answers this question immediately: “Had we not been taken out of Egypt we would have remained slaves” (Passover Hagadah). Had this version of the story been sufficient we could have skipped all the laborious discussion that ensues and made the night a little more like every other night. If the problem with slavery is the physical oppression, then could not the oppression have been removed and the Hebrews remained in Egypt? They could have made an arrangement with Pharaoh in which they were freed from slavery and provided with an opportunity to enter any profession and live wherever they liked.
Perhaps for psychological and social reasons this was unfeasible, and the Hebrews would have inevitably returned to servitude. The surest way of preventing a future lapse into slavery would be to fully empower the Hebrew nation. As Egypt was a superpower at the time, had the Hebrews become the ruling class of Egypt, they would have attained a tremendous amount of power. The Hebrews could have even left, received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and returned to Egypt and conquered the vulnerable state. We could have adapted the economy and religion to suit our needs, and used the might of the Egyptian army to conquer the land of Canaan.
Instead the Hebrews are expelled from Egypt on a quest for the ‘promised land,’ and are commanded to never return to Egypt. If the purpose of redemption was to protect the Hebrews, then the redemption was a failure. They are thrust into the desert and endure countless hardships before finally entering the land of Israel. Even once the Jews stake out a piece of the land for themselves, the only period of brief peace in our tradition was Solomon’s rule. The rest of our history is a continuous stream of internal and external power struggles in the land, and punctuated persecution outside the land. The Jews have yet to experience a lasting peace. We are haunted by the accusation leveled against Moses in the Torah time and time again: perhaps the Jews would have been better off had they remained in Egypt.
Throughout the Seder there is a tension between symbols of freedom and servitude. Oftentimes the same symbol paradoxically connotes both messages. We are commanded to lean in order to demonstrate our freedom, and yet the very fact that we are required to do so demonstrates that we are bound — in this case by tradition. Passover is not simply a liberation story, but rather a story of subjugation. The Jewish people were redeemed from Egyptian bondage not to enjoy freedom, but rather to be cast into a different type of servitude. We were granted the right of physical freedom at the cost of being burdened with a spiritual responsibility.
Our responsibility is not singularly explicit: perhaps that is the responsibility — to constantly question what our responsibility is. There is something there, something which our tradition tells us was given to us by God. The message which is at the core of Judaism is manifested through the laws we obey, the stories we tell, and the ideas we discuss. An integral component of this message is a concern with unchecked power that oppresses. This is highlighted by the story of Passover, the story of our conception as a peoplehood. The vast infrastructure of the Egyptian society, bolstered by Egyptian religion and culture, was founded on a pyramid scheme in which the elite are on top and are fully justified in being there, and the vast majority of people are subjugated on bottom. The Hebrews were enmeshed in this power system and had to be forcibly removed from it. We had to leave Egypt because we needed to create a society of our own, founded on our unique message, along with methods of both developing it and preserving it. The place that was chosen to accomplish this was the land of Israel, the place our forefathers had lived in.
Today, we have again been granted the opportunity to develop as a nation in the land of our ancestors. Different types of Jews interpret our message differently. For some, the only means of checking power is by not having any. For these Jews, the State of Israel is a travesty. For all the rest of the Jews the State of Israel is a necessity. Power is not the problem — it is necessary for both preservation and development. Instead the problem is unfettered power, which leads to oppression. The state of Israel is a battleground of interpretations of the Jewish message of how to maintain power while minimizing oppression.
Although the State of Israel’s attempts to minimize oppression is exemplary, especially given the circumstances, our detractors serve as a constant reminder that there is always work to be done. We are constantly reminded that Israel is a unique state comprised of a unique nation. We have a responsibility as a people, and only once we have completed our task may we truly “settle.” The Seder night serves not only as a commemoration of a historical event, but as a reminder of our responsibility as a nation today. There is much work to be done, and yet there is always hope that we will soon succeed. We end the Seder with a small note of optimism constrained by patience. To paraphrase, with elaboration: “May it be that we are brought to Jerusalem, to the mythical peaceful city, by next year; but first we must become the Nation.”