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Brooks: Freedom, social order and the Exodus

  • An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays during the Passover Holiday in the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, Thursday, March 28, 2013. The Passover holiday celebrates the biblical story of the Israelites' escape from slavery and exodus from Egypt. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Monday night was the start of Passover, the period when Jews celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery into freedom.

This is the part of the Exodus story that sits most easily with modern culture. We like stories of people who shake off the yoke of oppression and taste the first bliss of liberty. We like it when masses of freedom-yearning people gather in city squares in Beijing, Tehran, Cairo or Kiev.

But that's not all the Exodus story is, or not even mainly what it is. When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted to put Moses as a central figure on the Great Seal of the United States, they were not celebrating him as a liberator, but as a re-binder. It wasn't just that he led the Israelites out of one set of unjust laws. It was that he re-bound them with another set of laws. Liberating to freedom is the easy part. Re-binding with just order and accepted compulsion is the hard part.

America's founders understood that when you are creating a social order, the first people who need to be bound down are the leaders themselves.

The Moses of Exodus is not some majestic, charismatic, Charlton Heston-type hero who can be trusted to run things. He's a deeply flawed person like the rest of us. He's passive. He's afraid of snakes. He's a poor speaker. He whines, and he's sometimes angry and depressed. He's meek.

The first time Moses tries to strike out against Egyptian oppression, he does it rashly and on his own, and he totally messes it up. He sees an Egyptian soldier cruelly mistreating a Hebrew slave. He looks this way and that, to make sure nobody is watching. Then he kills the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.

It's a well-intentioned act of just rebellion, but it's done without order, a plan or a strategy. Even the Israelites don't admire it. They just think Moses is violent and impetuous. Moses has to flee into exile. The lesson some draw is that even well-motivated acts of liberation have to be done under the structure of control and authority.

Even after he's summoned to lead his people at the burning bush, Moses has still not fully learned this lesson. He rushes off to his task, but he doesn't pause to circumcise his son — the act that symbolizes the covenant with God. A leader who isn't himself obedient to the rules is not going to be effective, so God tries to kill Moses. Fortunately, Moses' wife, Zipporah, grabs a sharp stone and does the deed.

This is a vision of obedient leadership. Leaders in the ancient world, like leaders today, tried to project an image of pompous majesty and mastery. But Moses was to exemplify the quality of "anivut." Anivut, Rabbi Norman Lamm once wrote, "means a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism."

Just as leaders need binding, so do regular people. The Israelites in Exodus whine; they groan; they rebel for petty reasons. When they are lost in a moral wilderness, they immediately construct an idol to worship and give meaning to their lives.


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