A long obedience
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.
But Exodus is a reminder that statecraft is soulcraft, that good laws can nurture better people. Even Jews have different takes on how exactly one must observe the 613 commandments, but the general vision is that the laws serve many practical and spiritual purposes. For example, they provide a comforting structure for daily life. If you are nervous about the transitions in your life, the moments when you go through a door post, literally or metaphorically, the laws will give you something to do in those moments and ease you on your way.
The laws tame the ego and create habits of deference by reminding you of your subordination to something permanent. The laws spiritualize matter, so that something very normal, like having a meal, has a sacred component to it. The laws build community by anchoring belief in common practices. The laws moderate religious zeal; faith is not expressed in fiery acts but in everyday habits. The laws moderate the pleasures; they create guardrails that are meant to restrain people from going off to emotional or sensual extremes.
The 20th-century philosopher Eliyahu Dessler wrote, “the ultimate aim of all our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion.” Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.