Passover is the holiday of freedom where we celebrate the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. The theme of freedom is hugely popular and has been a source of inspiration for oppressed peoples for millennia. But we rarely take the time to reflect on the rest of the story, which reveals what the ideal of freedom is truly pointing to. The Exodus from Egypt is only the first part of the story. After they cross over the Reed Sea, the Hebrews come to Mt. Sinai where they have a dramatic and life altering encounter with God. God gives the Hebrews the Torah, aka the Law of Moses, and from then on they are the Nation of Israel. In Judaism, indeed in the Torah itself, the Exodus is meaningless without Sinai because the freedom that God gives to the Israelites isn’t the freedom of anarchy or libertinism. It is freedom under the law, freedom within the constraints of relationship and mutual responsibility, within a covenant. This freedom is necessarily constrained within the covenant because freedom from oppression cannot exist unless our mutual responsibilities to one another are acknowledged and respected. The stories of the Exodus and Sinai teach us that true freedom can only exist under discipline.
Most of us don’t like that word: discipline. It conjures up images of stern authority figures and arbitrary restrictions. But self-discipline is a necessary component of everyday life for most of us. We wake up to go to work, whether we want to or not. We force ourselves to eat healthy foods when we really want something deep fried and filled with sugar. We recognize that disciplining ourselves leads to a greater good than momentary enjoyment. If the Torah is meant to be a means for social and personal discipline, what is the greater good at which it aims? It is a twofold aim: to create a society grounded in justice, and to turn the individual into a mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish word which signifies a person with integrity and honor.
If any of you have, or have tried to, read the Torah, you may be wondering how the Torah could possibly achieve its goal. It’s a notoriously dry collection of books once you get past the halfway mark of Exodus, full of a lot of seemingly arcane, and frankly immoral, laws. While there are the beautiful aphorisms that everyone loves to quote, like “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” there are also the awful laws that offend our own sense of morality regarding slavery, genocide, LGBT people, and women. And that’s not to mention the seemingly arbitrary laws about diet and mixing fabrics. How is this supposed to be a guide to justice and becoming a mensch?
The answer lies, of course, in the Jewish tradition of biblical interpretation. Jews have been interpreting their central documents for millennia, and many of the things we find abhorrent, the ancient rabbis struggled with as well. Rabbi Hillel was one of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history and lived just a little before Jesus. There is a story in the Talmud which relates his own approach to Torah interpretation. A gentile came to him and said, “Rabbi, if you can teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot, I will convert to Judaism.” And Hillel stood on one foot (I like to imagine him putting his finger on his nose) and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary. Go and study the commentary.” All of the Torah must be interpreted in light of this Golden Rule. Of course in saying this, he wasn’t saying anything substantially different from what you can find in the prophets, like Isaiah 1:17 and Micah 6:8.
Most people like that story because it makes Judaism sound easy. They focus on the Golden Rule part and forget the part where he told him to go and study. But study is central to this project of self-discipline. The Jewish method of study is different from what most of us are used to. When we think of studying, we think of libraries, reading, research, and writing papers. In contrast, Jewish study cannot be done alone. It must be done with a teacher and another student because the Jewish method of study is dependent on discussion and argument. The method of arguing and defending a position against a friendly opponent leads to a greater understanding of the topic at hand. And knowledge of our duties emerges through relationship.
But of course there’s more to Jewish spiritual discipline than study and argument. The spiritual discipline of Judaism is a unified program of study, reflection, and mitzvot, all of which operate in the life of the individual to help him grow into a mensch, and by creating many menschen to create a community grounded in justice. Study helps us to learn through critical examination what our duties are to others. Regular prayer and reflection was instituted by the rabbinic authorities to remind us daily of our values and ideals. And mitzvot, good deeds or commandments, ensure that we act on the objects of our study and meditation. Through this threefold program of self-discipline we can emerge from the oppression of our egocentrism to become the liberated person of integrity and goodness we were meant to be. This is the message of the Exodus story.