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The Path to Freedom
On the surface, the Biblical story of the Exodus looks rather strange. It symbolises the universal ideal of freedom, yet the plot focuses on a hasty escape from bondage. Other liberation sagas describe proud people as they defeat their oppressors, not running away from their homes. But Moses and the Israelites had no intention of correcting the repressive Egyptian system. They simply left Egypt and went out to wander in a barren desert. Surely, no one would accept this strategy today. Just imagine what most Europeans would have thought of a suggestion to regain their freedom by leaving their countries and allowing the Nazi occupation to last forever!
It seems that the Exodus story was meant to shed a different light on the concept of freedom. A closer look at the entire plot (Exodus 3-14) may show that the purpose of the long process, from the ten plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea, was to change the common perception of human liberty. The historical drama was meant to remain forever in our collective memory, as an eternal, universal lesson. It is not told only as a story from the distant past, but also as a model for a dynamic spiritual process for all times. This is clearly the message recited every year at the Seder Night celebration: 'In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt.' This also suggests that true freedom should be experienced on an intimate, personal level, as well as on the level of national liberation.
But how can an ancient story about a tribe of slaves fleeing their masters serve as a model for liberation in our times?
John Rawls suggested in his 1971 book 'A Theory of Justice' that the first principle of a just society must be Liberty, where "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all" (see summary). Naturally, Rawls based his requirement on the philosophical and political foundations of modern, liberal democracies. But in reality, his vision remains largely unfulfilled. Modern democracy is far from perfect, particularly for the less powerful social classes. Most democratic countries today are not really ruled by the 'demos' - the common people - but by a relatively small, powerful social group. Ironically, many cases of 'ordinary people' rising to power are found in countries that have only recently become democratic (e.g. Poland's Lech Walesa, Czech President Vaclav Havel etc.). No one honestly expects an unknown pauper to win the US or French elections. In this sense, most democracies today are basically oligarchies.
However, to quote Sir Winston Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Most countries still have much to gain from adopting democratic principles, but the goal of freedom for "each person", as Rawls puts it, is yet to be achieved.
Many people, from the 1960's Hippies to the current "New Age" followers, have sought personal freedom through extreme individualism. Some of them seem to have turned their backs on any social involvement, implying that there is a conflict between individual and collective liberties.
Perhaps this is the message of the Exodus story: National and personal liberation need not be mutually exclusive. The process of liberation from Egyptian bondage was ignited by a series of cosmic events that were beyond human control or comprehension, but the first guideline given to the Hebrews indicated the possible path for human participation: "And God spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: 'This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." (Exodus 12:1-2) The first instruction to the Hebrews was to declare their own time sphere. Their lunar months broke the framework of the Egyptian solar calendar, thus disrupting the entire oppressive system. Only then were they ready to adopt a proactive approach and take practical steps toward freedom.
The ancient Hebrews went out of bondage by liberating their minds from Egypt's false, tyrannical concepts. Only then they went physically into a desert with little material diversions, where no one owned more land or had more power than others. A few weeks later, they received their constitution, which included more individual and communal obligations than selfish rights. Their challenge was, and still is, to fulfil this vision in their inhabited country, where reality is more materialistic and practical. Yet, one of the beauties of the Exodus model is the harmony between the processes of personal and societal liberation. It implies that one cannot work without the other, and that both should be cemented together by values and obligations.
Perhaps this should be our lesson: We can reach true freedom if we improve our democracies by liberating our minds from the oligarchy's propaganda and by empowering individuals through communal solidarity and moral values.
(See also: 'Community Democracy')
Ehud Tokatly, 21/April/2005