Passover, America, and the Long Road to Liberty

An Essay by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Author and Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City

The story of Moses and the Exodus illustrate the importance of passing on values to the next generation. Freedom and democracy can only continue to prosper if society makes a concerted effort to ensure American values move from parent to child.

A grandfather and grandson stand for the national anthem before a Major League Baseball game, June 8, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

And Moses said unto the people: Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage…And it shall be when the Lord shall bring thee into the land….that thou shalt keep this service in this month…Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days,; and there shall be seen no leavened bread with thee in all thy borders.  And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.
--Exodus 13

America is a covenantal nation; its creed is put forth in the Declaration of Independence. The American covenant was born when founders pledged themselves in support of this declaration "with a firm reliance upon Divine providence." The preservation of the American creed depends upon the perpetuation of the American story and idea from generation to generation.

Civics is critical to that transition. Yet we also must create a society in which we are raising our children to value work and to understand that the previous generations are relying upon them to pass what we believe in to the future.

Passing of values from one generation to the next

The lessons of the Exodus are thus deeply relevant to us as Americans. Perhaps its most important teaching for the future of the American polity is that certain things matter more than politics. 

The lessons of the Exodus are thus deeply relevant to us as Americans. Perhaps its most important teaching for the future of the American polity is that certain things matter more than politics.

One might have thought that Moses, on the cusp of the most important political liberation in the history of the world, would speak to the Israelites about politics, law, and nationalism. Instead, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, Moses speaks about parents and children. “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” 

Fresco of Moses by Joseph Schonman from 1857 in Altlerchenfelder church in Vienna. (Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com)

Moses, Sacks notes, “fixed his vision not on the immediate but on the distant future, and not on adults but children. In so doing he was making a fundamental point. It may be hard to escape from tyranny but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society.”

The Passover ritual – parents transmitting to their posterity the story of the origin of liberty, its ultimate meaning, and the laws pertaining to the celebration of liberty – ensures the wellbeing of a free people.  Without good parents, it is hard to have a democracy.

Moses’ instruction on how to ensure the preservation and nurturing of freedom speak profoundly to distressing indicators in American society today. The statistics of those under 35 who have had a serious conversation with those over 60 are incredibly low. 

Without good parents, it is hard to have a democracy.

Ben Sasse, the Nebraska senator and author of How to Raise an American Adult, has been doing the most interesting writing and thinking on the disturbing lack of interaction between the younger generation and older generation. He argues that vital social skills are acquired by adolescents interacting with those outside their age group.

Sasse also notes that for many young people today, freedom is highly consumptive in nature; few enter college having engaged in hard work, and the most accomplished of youths view such labor as a distraction from the extracurricular activities that will ensure admission to an elite university.

He cites Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who studied the spiritual attitudes and moral beliefs of 18- to 23-year-old “emerging adults,” and reports that well over half of those interviewed agreed that their “well-being can be measured by what they own, that buying more things would make them happier, and that they get a lot of pleasure simply from shopping and buying things.”

Youths explore the latest technology at an Apple Store, October 2, 2017. (franz12 / Shutterstock.com)

Sustaining the American idea

From a social perspective, the American covenant is endangered if an entire generation is raised to think of themselves living in an endless present, unformed by the past, and without obligation to posterity. Only constant dedication and a feeling of obligation can sustain the American idea.

From a social perspective, the American covenant is endangered if an entire generation is raised to think of themselves living in an endless present, unformed by the past, and without obligation to posterity.

Here, too, Moses’ commandments at the Exodus are instructive.  One of the most counterintuitive aspects of Passover is the notion that freedom led to law; that in order to sustain freedom a series of commandments must be kept.

Passover, the festival of freedom, is regulated by a series of laws obligating the removal of all leaven; and as any Jew who has fully observed Passover will tell you, preparing to celebrate the festival is hard work, and involves a host of obligations. The Bible thereby indicates that duty, obligation, and law are not the antithesis of freedom, but serve rather as its foundation. 

Sadly, too few members of either political party today understand freedom in this way. The left and the right have profound policy disagreements, with the former emphasizing governmental removal of inequality and the latter individual liberty. Yet as Yuval Levin has noted, both left and right seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way. They take the human person largely for granted.

As Yuval Levin has noted, both left and right seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way. They take the human person largely for granted.

If, however, it is the American soul that is essential to the future of democracy and the perpetuation of our covenant, then, as Tocqueville wrote, it falls to mediating institutions such as faith communities and families to mold the moral character of free Americans. The quality of political leadership is critical to our country's future, but it may be that the very civic and social fabric of society has to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

Americans today are rightly worried not only about the health of the polity, but of the future of American democracy itself. They understandably seek solutions in public policy, and they look to elected officials, and to our governing institutions, for answers.  Yet it is possible that the Exodus – the story that perhaps more than any other has inspired America – teaches us that what ails our country cannot be fixed through policy, politics, or legislation.  

Rather, it will fall to America’s faith communities that still utilize the moral language of the Hebrew Bible, and to parents who are willing to internalize its lessons, to ensure that a better understanding of freedom, and of the American covenant, is internalized by the next generation.  Only through them will a new birth of freedom -- in its most genuine sense- -- be experienced by America again. 

We can have better leaders at the top.  We can have better financial policies at the top. But it may be that the very civic and social fabric of society has to be rebuilt from the bottom up.
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