in memory of belda kaufman lindenbaum

Learning from Exodus: Freedom, law, and Israel

Our freedom today depends upon understanding and coming to an appreciation of how we have been shaped by Jewish history and the traumas of the past.

We are in the throes of a crisis the outcome of which is still shrouded in a cloud.

The story of the exodus from Egypt and the aftermath in the desert leading up to the giving of the law at Sinai, has much to teach us about our current situation, in terms of the nature of freedom and the imperative of law.

The exodus from Egypt was more of a disentanglement than a clean break. Along with Pharaoh, the pull of their former lives in Egypt continued to pursue the Israelites into the desert. And the aftermath of the redemption was a mix of celebration and turmoil; witness the Song at the Sea alongside the crises of insufficient food and drink, the external threat of Amalek, the sin of the golden calf and more.

A transformative event, like the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the law, was essential to put the children of Israel on a path to self-sufficiency and an ordered society – and even that required generations.

Similarly, the establishment of the State of Israel engendered a need to redefine Jewish identity in light of the new circumstances of national sovereignty. Have we had our modern-day Sinai yet? Today we are suffering anxiety and turmoil around how to organize and govern our free society. Does the current drive for judicial reform help provide direction and discipline to unify our people? Or does it just create more uncertainty, as we see now?

In ancient times and as well as today, extraction from a situation of oppression or powerlessness into a reality of living as free people is no simple achievement. So, what can we learn from this narrative of our ancient redemption?

The key lies in how the following verse is interpreted: “and the children of Israel went out with a high hand.” (Exodus 14:8) “High hand” relates to the way the Children of Israel departed Egypt, their state of mind.

Onkelos deviates from the straightforward meaning of the Torah text by translating “with a high hand”, be’yad ramah, as “with heads held high.”

What’s the difference here? The Targum Yonatan clarifies – he translates, “with heads held high” as “with a raised hand overcoming the Egyptians.” This translation points to a frame of mind that is focused on the Egyptians, looking back and getting back at them, with a bit of triumphalism, rather than looking forward.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz (1800-1851) explains that, in contradistinction to the raised hand, which is set against the Egyptians, “with heads held high” indicates a different attitude of freedom – one that is “not [set] against others with pride and a feeling of superiority rather… as free people without fear of any man”. (Mei Hashiloah, on the Torah portion of Beshalah)

The Mei Hashiloah is highlighting the danger that the Israelites, because of the trauma of slavery, would not properly separate from the abusive environment in which they developed. It is very tempting to adopt a stance of victimhood and self-righteousness; together, these characteristics seem to grant the moral high ground.

However, adopting a posture of victimhood, allowing it to shape one’s personality and the lens through which one views the world, can be very destructive. Too often, the victim turns into the victimizer. The abused becomes the abuser.

Undoubtedly, the Israelites suffered terrible injustices at the hands of their Egyptian masters. However, playing the victim in a new era post-slavery would, in a sense, perpetuate the slavery. Their new-found freedom would be no freedom at all, as their experience would still be oriented and revolve around their former oppressors – it would be a reaction to and in relation to Egypt.

The challenge today

Rousseau famously wrote, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.” Freedom for all people begins with a proper mindset of freedom.

For the Israelites, freedom required a paradigm shift away from powerless victim to empowered servants of God joined together by a cosmic destiny. This was the promise granted at Sinai and why the progression between Passover and Shavuot is so critical.

The challenge our ancestors faced back then is analogous to the situation which we, especially those of us who live in Israel, encounter today. Let’s look at two examples:

1. In 1948, following 2000 years of suffering and exile, we founded a modern nation in our ancestral homeland. This was achieved at a very dear price. The question is to what extent will we allow our Diaspora experience and recent Jewish history of persecution to orient us?

Have we been entirely successful in shedding the baggage of stateless victimization? Are all of our enemies equivalent to the Nazis? Or Arab rejectionists? Or Amalek? Are we always the victims? Can we feel a sense of commonality with others, such as fellow citizens or others who have suffered their own forms of oppression?

2. Following four inconclusive elections, the Right received a mandate to govern. The political arena seemed on the cusp of settling into some sort of much needed stability. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on pressing security, economic and social issues the government embarked upon an attempt to overhaul the legal system. Somehow this effort is intertwined with the memory of the Disengagement from Gaza.

At first glance the connection between the two instances is baffling. Yet, upon reflection, we see that the collective trauma which a segment of Israeli society suffered 17 years ago continues to dominate their orientation. Their belief that they are “second class citizens” and their desire for “justice” are what fuel the pathos of the judicial reformers. In the past weeks we have witnessed the dangers of this reactive approach, where judicial reformers try and force change through a “high hand.”

Erich Fromm in his seminal book, Escape from Freedom, famously distinguished between the concepts of “Freedom from” and “Freedom to.”

“Freedom to” is “one which enables us to realize our own individual self; to have faith in this self and in life.” In contradistinction, “Freedom from” is not really freedom at all, it is reactive. The oppressor continues to cast a shadow over the oppressed in a different way.

Our freedom today depends upon understanding and coming to an appreciation of how we have been shaped by Jewish history and the traumas of the past. As with the children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt to the giving of law at Shavuot, there needs to be a modern-day paradigm shift from helpless victim to empowered free people. How we approach the rule of law is an important reflection of this dynamic and defines the kind of freedom we will have in the future.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post