Tonight, nine out of every 10 Jews in Israel will sit around the Seder table and retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. This event, which occurred approximately 3,500 years ago, continues to ignite many people’s imagination.
You do not need to be Orthodox or traditional to perceive a seminal ethos in the story. Indeed, Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, the outstanding leaders of political Zionism who were devoid of any trace of tradition, gave much thought to the story of the exodus and used it to promote their national vision.
Many non-Jews, too, had an intense experience of the narrative of the book of Exodus and shaped their inner world in its light. Both the Puritans, who immigrated to the New World, as well as the African Americans, who arrived there as slaves, saw themselves as continuing the exodus saga, and were thus able to overcome the enormous difficulties that confronted them.
In other words, the exodus is a captivating drama, larger than life, to which each generation connects in its own way.
The heart of the story is the freedom won by a group of slaves, freed from grueling servitude, who became a nation that bears its own distinctive identity and has left a lasting mark on world history. Freedom has two facets, well analyzed by philosopher Isaiah Berlin: freedom from the yoke of another, and freedom to provide a unique meaning to existence. One cannot be a free person without the first, the physical sense, but there is no point to being free without the second freedom, which is freedom of the mind and spirit.
Today’s Israel has more than achieved its physical freedom. Israel is a regional superpower that dwarfs its enemies. They can still annoy Israel, but pose no danger to its existence. Israel has a robust and stable economy powered by strong growth engines, most notably an exciting high-tech industry on which the global future is being built.
We overcame nature itself by desalinating water instead of relying on the Kinneret and rain. Israel’s agriculture technology has made the desert bloom. And recently discovered natural resources guarantee our children’s future.
Jews have never known the physical freedom they enjoy here and now. Our backs, hunched over by the journey of millennia in exile, have straightened, and our souls, crushed by the horrors of the Holocaust and blood libels, have recovered. We have conquered the mountain.
But what is the ultimate purpose of the flourishing Zionist enterprise? What vision do we want to realize through the physical freedom we earned with blood, sweat, and tears?
The truly great task — the spiritual freedom to take advantage of the opportunity that was given us as a nation that strives to repair the world in the 21st century — has yet to be accomplished. The Festival of Freedom must be a signpost that it is time to push ourselves to be accountable, personally and nationally, to the question of purpose.
Spiritual freedom is needed to cope with the “outside.” There is no point in the existence of a Jewish state that chooses to follow a script written for it across the ocean. Copying the culture, tastes, outlooks, and values washed up on our shore by the global tsunami empties our sovereign existence of all meaning. Being “a nation like all nations” means adopting another’s point of view — and that is the mental and emotional state of slaves.
This and more.
During millennia of exile we were not responsible for the destinies of others. We had no armed forces; we did not use public goods or international diplomacy. The physical freedom we have obtained gives us the freedom of the mind to exercise responsibility, as Jews, to treat the Arab minority decently, to insist on the highest standards of morality when we deploy our military might, to exercise sensitivity in the socioeconomic field, and to conduct a moral foreign policy.
It is no coincidence that herut (freedom) and ahrayut (responsibility) sound so similar in Hebrew. For the objective of the battle for freedom, in its physical sense, is to allow those released from servitude to take responsibility for their own lives and thereby acquire freedom of the mind and spirit, as well.
Passover gains new scope and meaning when we understand that the Festival of Freedom is also the Festival of Responsibility.
Professor Yedidia Stern is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute.