The Exodus narrative — so central to our Passover seder — also informs our social consciousness as a people.
The Bible teaches in very strong words, v'ahavtem et ha'ger, you must love the stranger, the other, the individual who is the underdog in whatever society you happen to find yourself, ki gerim hayitem b'eretz Mitzrayim, because you were the other, the stranger, the slave in the land of Egypt. That's what social consciousness is all about.
The Bible also teaches that we Jews, as a people, had to go through the servitude in Egypt in order to empathize with the underdog. That's a profound concept. For me, the underdog includes the Palestinian. For all of us, it ought to include, as well, the homosexual — whoever happens to be the ger, the stranger, the one who's looked askance at, in whatever society. We must identify with these individuals. I would go a step further. This also includes the people suffering today in Syria, the victims of Iran, women especially.
There are two seminal events in the Bible and they reinforce the concept of social consciousness. The events are linked in the kiddush we make every Friday night, as well as in the Ten Commandments — they are the Creation and the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus is actually the corollary of the Creation because the real importance of the Creation story is that every human being is made in God's image. And, if indeed, this is so, then every human being has the right to be free and inviolate.
To pursue righteousness and social justice — this is what we were put in the world for. In this message, the particular and the universal are not separate They coalesce into one — which is what it means to be a Jew.
Not many people know that the proposed seal of the United States was to depict the splitting of the Reed Sea. Moses was to be standing at the shore with his hands outstretched and the Egyptians were to be drowning. "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God" was to be the inscription. When people rebel against enslavers, they are showing the most profound obedience to God. That's another amazing notion. And let us not forget that the first rebels against such tyrants were the Hebrews.
The Bible teaches that we must choose freedom. Even, if necessary, we must die rather than be enslaved. That's actually "Give me liberty or give me death" in an earlier incarnation. This is what Judaism demands, even though freedom is fraught with responsibility.
Without question, our return to Israel after 2,000 years of exile — and especially after the Holocaust — had as its model God's redemption of Israel after Egypt. There's no question that the spur and the excitement behind the return — as it was for the American founding fathers creating a new nation — was the Exodus story.
And the model for the Arab Spring is, undoubtedly, the Jewish people in Israel. Because the Arabs have no such tradition, neither of democracy nor of freedom. But they see it at work on a daily basis in Israel. And it doesn't matter if they see it only on TV.
Most revolutions, in the first instance, fail and the people who take over are worse than the people rebelled against. That could happen with the Arab Spring. I pray it won't, but it could. But, nevertheless, we have been the model, and I remain hopeful that eventually freedom will emerge throughout the Middle East.
We say in the Haggadah that it is incumbent upon every individual to feel as if he came out of Egypt. It's a difficult thing to do. But we do it because we don't only remember that we were slaves and came out of Egypt. What we try to do is to turn past history into present existential experience by tasting the bitter herbs and by drinking the four cups of wine that make us feel free.
That's the point of the seder. In every society, there are always outcasts, forgotten people. Sometimes, they're even the educationally challenged. Sometimes, they're the handicapped. And sometimes, they're the homeless. The seder reminds us that we have to identify with them; we have to feel that existential feeling of being the underdog, the ones pushed out.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel. This piece is excerpted from his remarks at a recent program at the National Museum of American Jewish History.