Exodus in America
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Alas, neither Garth, nor Lady Gaga, nor JLo made reference to the Torah reading. Moved as I was to hear the president reference Psalms and allude to Ecclesiastes, wouldn’t it be great someday to hear someone on some inaugural morning say, “In this week’s Torah reading…?” That day has yet to come, so this day, this year, you will just have to settle for me.
In this week’s Torah reading, coinciding with our quadrennial transfer of presidential power, we have a fabulous opportunity to consider the narrative that sits at the core of our identities as Jews and as Americans: the story of the Exodus. For Jews, the Exodus is so omnipresent in our tradition that its importance in shaping our collective identity is self-evident. Not once, not twice, but three times in this week’s parashah, we are instructed to tell our children of the Exodus, how an enslaved and oppressed people were led out from bondage by means of God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. Throughout the Bible, throughout the prayer book, throughout the Jewish year, the Exodus narrative is woven into our Jewish self-understanding – not merely knowing the story, nor even telling the story, but, as we know from the Passover seder – to see the story as our own, as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. To do so is to fulfill the mitzvah and fulfill one’s Jewish identity. To fail to do so, like the wicked child, is to exclude oneself from our shared past and shared destiny.
But the significance of the Exodus is not just limited to Jews. All Americans, no matter their faith, can rightfully claim the story as a crucial building block to our self-definition. As the great scholar of American Hebraism Eran Shalev argues, from the very beginning of our country’s history, in fact, well before that beginning, the story of this week’s Torah reading has shaped who we are and who we believe ourselves to be. (American Zion) In 1630, when the Puritans set forth from European shores in search of religious freedom, they compared their journey on the Arbella to that of the ancient Israelites being led out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land. Unlike the militant secularism of the French Revolution, the American revolutionaries co-opted the Exodus in order to give voice to their struggles and aspirations. In Thomas Jefferson’s estimation, England’s “taxation without representation” was akin to “a deliberate systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.” On July 4, 1776, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were directed to design the Seal of the United States. Franklin proposed a portrayal of Moses lifting his hand to the Red Sea as Pharaoh drowned in the waters, with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Jefferson suggested an image of the children of Israel in the wilderness led by a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. In our lore, in our literature, for our leaders and lawgivers, the Exodus archetype has loomed large in our national imagination. From our predecessors to the present day, we have been a people on an “errand into wilderness,” God’s “second chosen,” and “God’s New Israel.” (J. Baden, The Book of Exodus)
So this week, at the historic inflection point where we find ourselves, let’s pledge our hands and hearts to that Exodus story and affirm the lessons it offers our nation. Let’s ask ourselves, as Americans and as American Jews, the ever-present and all-important question of meaning. How shall this story from our shared past inform our shared future? What are the enduring takeaways of the Exodus? Here are my top five for you to consider.
First and foremost: The story of Exodus is a story of redemption. Every age has its pharaohs, every age has its literal and figurative Egypts – the narrow straits of mitzrayim from which liberation is sought. From the Puritans to the revolutionaries to the Mormons to the Civil War to the Civil Rights era, every generation imagines itself standing on the banks of the Red Sea. In 1955, reflecting on Brown vs. Board of Education, a young Martin Luther King preached: “The Red Sea was opened, and freedom and justice marched through to the other side,” a motif that would remain central to King’s ministry right up to the night before his assassination. In 1963, at Chicago’s National Conference on Religion and Race, Heschel opened his remarks by reminding his audience that “It was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” In 2013, speaking in Jerusalem, President Obama reminded his listeners that “For generations, this promise [of the Exodus story] helped people weather poverty and persecution.” The rhetoric of the Exodus comforts us that we are not the first to yearn to be free; we are not the first to be immured in our homes waiting for the plague to pass; others before us have cried out to the Lord seeking redemption.
Second, the Exodus narrative reassures us that the light of redemption is ever on the horizon. Joy cometh in the morning; it has and will again; moral progress is possible; and national transformation is never beyond our reach. The challenge of the Exodus generation was not solely Pharaoh’s oppressive regime. The Israelites were shackled in the immobilizing bondage of inertia and self-doubt. The test of wills was not merely between Pharaoh and Moses, but between Moses and his own people – whether he could convince the Israelites that there was existence to be had beyond their servitude. Over and over again, as Michael Walzer traces in his study of the subject, the Israelites resisted Moses, waxing nostalgic for some illusory past, longing for the fleshpots of Egypt, murmuring throughout their desert sojourn in toxic, retrogressive, backsliding defeatism. (Exodus and Revolution) We can all relate to the fear of the future and the allure of yesteryear. The Israelites felt it then and we understand why people feel it today. Exodus knows this fear, names it, and responds to it with hope, hope that – no matter the internal and external forces counseling otherwise – this world can change. We can change. Tomorrow can be different from today.
Third. Important as the story of our emancipation may be in informing how we see ourselves, even more important is how the story instructs us how to see and relate to others. The freedom granted to the Israelites was not given willy-nilly. “Let my people go that they may serve me.” (Exodus 10:3) There is a covenantal responsibility embedded into our liberation – a form of citizenship, if you will – a series of obligations, moral, communal, national, and otherwise. Our freedom is meaningful only insofar as we affirm our responsibility to law, to each other, and most of all, to building a just society. To invoke the Exodus is to trigger a sense of empathy, a demand to respond to the condition of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and to anyone at the periphery of society. Why? Because, as the Bible explains over and over, we were once strangers in a strange land. One law, the Torah teaches, for stranger and citizen alike. (Leviticus 24:22) Not just as Jews, but as Americans, we never forget, in Oscar Handlin’s words, that we are a nation of uprooted immigrants and that the embrace of the other – the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – informs our being and our borders. Yes, the Exodus story is a story of freedom. But it is an American story because it is a story that reminds us that with freedom comes great responsibility. It reminds us that our strength is measured by the degree to which we are attentive to the weakest in our midst.
Fourth, and here we extend beyond this week’s Torah reading. The Exodus reminds us that in order to get to the promised land, we will have to go through the wilderness. As Walzer writes, “The Israelites are not . . . magically transported to the promised land; they are not carried on the ‘eagle’s wings’ of Exodus 19; they must march to get there, and the march is full of difficulties, crises [and] struggles . . . as if to invite human as well as divine resolution.” (p. 10) There will be backsliding; there will be murmurings; there will be golden calves along the way. There are no shortcuts. The wilderness is a place filled with anxiety, with more unknowns than knowns. But the wilderness is also a place for discovery, for opportunity, for renewal, and for growth. At risk of giving away the ending, the Exodus generation never actually makes it to the promised land. Their story, our story, is not about reaching a destination, but about committing to the journey, of picking up where our predecessors left off, putting one foot in front of the other, even when, perhaps especially when, the duration and direction of the road ahead is not entirely clear. It is a lesson that finds ready application to our country’s present hour. Our worth is measured not by where we end up, but by the manner in which we journey forward into the unknown.
Fifth and finally. Once again from Walzer: “There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.” (p. 149) If we want to get out of Egypt, to get through the wilderness, then the only chance we have is to do it together. The Exodus may have been revolutionary, but it was not messianic or apocalyptic. The story of our people is the story of a mixed multitude who had to figure out a way to live together, to affirm a covenant together, and to move ahead together. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua – they hit bumps along the way, but they were pragmatists. They learned to respect what each brought to the table, to work through their differences, and to get along in order to move along. This was actually the message that King preached that fateful final night in Memphis: not just that he had been to the mountaintop, but that the greatest danger was not Pharaoh, but infighting. As the prophet Jeremiah warned, it is within our own people that the deadliest enemies are found. In America, those enemies are racism, nativism, demonization, and baseless hatreds of all kinds. The ancient Israelites were different tribes, yet they learned to march forward together. So must we. Our national dialogue, our very souls, must be capacious enough to house differences, to house the red and the blue, the urban and the rural, conservative and liberal. As we heard this week, we must learn to listen to one another, to hear one another, to see one another, and to show respect to one another. What does the Exodus teach us as Americans? That whatever we do, we need to do it together.
First: We are not the first to experience Egypt.
Second: Resist the allure of nostalgia; tomorrow can be better than today.
Third: The freedoms of Exodus are there to prompt us to care for the stranger in our midst.
Fourth: In order to get to the promised land, we must first get through the wilderness.
Fifth: We can only step forward if we do so together.
Five enduring lessons of the Exodus. Five lessons embedded in the DNA of our nation. Five lessons that speak directly to our present moment. No doubt there are other lessons to be found. I have my list, and I imagine you have yours. It is, after all, a big book. Let’s keep the story close, in our hearts and in the works of our hands, our north star guiding us in our shared journey forward.
Baden, Joel. The Book of Exodus: A Biography (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2019)
Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2d Ed., 2002)
Jefferson, Thomas. “A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans.” (1774)
Shalev, Eran. American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014)
Walzer, Michael. Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1986)