Sunday, April 5, 2009

Passover: Make a Better World?

In a recent Religion and Ethics interview with Dr. Michael Walzer (Professor, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ), Dr. Walser provides this meaning of the Exodus story:

The Exodus story isn’t a story of universal liberation. The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt saves only the Israelites. But the idea is that this can be repeated, and it invites people to imitate it, to do it again.

The Haggadah that we read, the book of Passover prayers that we read on the night of the seder, is a story of divine deliverance, the hand of God against the Egyptians. But people insisted on finding human agency in it and retelling it as a story of liberation, from the House of Bondage to the Promised Land.

You marched across the desert to reach a place in which you could have a better life than you could have in Egypt. It’s going to be very slow because it takes a long time to erode, to overcome the slave mentality, and in fact Moses eventually decides, or God decides it will take a whole generation. It will take 40 years ’til there are people who were born in freedom.

They get there, and it doesn’t exactly flow with milk and honey, and freedom is hard work. This is a realistic account of how human beings move through periods of radical social change. The story was an inspiration for the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement was a great achievement for—a liberation for America.

But one of the things we’ve learned is that sometimes you need not only God’s help, you need help from your friends, from people—like the people in Darfur today. They can’t do it themselves. They can’t march themselves. They need help. Think of democratic dissidents in China.

The world is always radically imperfect and radically in need of improvement, and it is the task of each generation to retell this story and to try to make the world better.


For many Jews, Dr. Walzer's interpretation of the Passover event and the Exodus is probably satisfying. To me, it seems superficial. For one thing, there are two passovers in the Old Testament. One takes place in Egypt when the first-born sons of Israel were spared when the angel of death passed over the Hebrews' homes. These homes were marked by the blood of the lamb on the door posts. The second passing over of death happened in Jericho when the household of Rahab was spared. Her home was marked by the scarlet cord that hung from the window. In both stories, the passing over of death is linked to scarlet lines of cord and blood. We are not faced with a call to liberation and social justice, but with an invitation to contemplate the Blood that saves.

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