Passover has always had a special meaning for me. It represents the passage of slaves into freedom. It is the earliest expression of a successful revolt against repression.
For this reason, Moses and the Exodus have played a significant role in the history of the United States. The Pilgrims leaving England thought of themselves as Israelites fleeing Pharaoh in the person of King James. Similarly, in Common Sense, Thomas Paine likened King George to pharaoh.
We were taught, when the Continental Congress asked Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams to propose a seal for the United States, they recommended Moses, leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.
The Exodus was an inspiration to American slaves and was a major theme of slave spirituals. One in particular made its way into the Haggada my family used when I was a child. “Go Down Moses” was always sung at our seder table. “When Israel was in Egypt Land,/ Let my people go;/ Oppressed so hard they could not stand/ Let my people go./ Go down, Moses,/Way down in Egypt’s Land./Tell ol’ Pharoah,/Let my people go.”
Numerous American leaders at various times have been analogized to Moses. Suffice it to say, the concept of liberty, embodied in the Exodus story, is as American as apple pie.
Because the concept of freedom was new to people that grew up in slavery, the fleeing Israelites, fearing that the pursuing pharaoh would catch them, wanted to return to Egypt. In Exodus 14:11-12, they questioned Moses:
Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?
Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.
The Israelites would have to wander in the wilderness for 40 years to rid themselves of the slave mentality and enter the Promised Land as a free people.
But can the reverse happen? Can — and would — a free people voluntarily surrender their liberties to a pharaoh who promises to take care of them from cradle to grave? Can personal freedom and its concomitant, personal responsibility, become too heavy a burden?
The Founders thought that people might find it so and cautioned Americans from giving up their inalienable rights for security.
Leading up to the creation of the United States, in 1759, Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This statement has morphed into many variants attributed to Franklin, including the oft-circulated “Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”
Likewise, Patrick Henry, speaking in support of the Constitution, cautioned, “Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men without a consequent loss of liberty!” Also in support of the Constitution, Henry said, “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
I am afraid that an increasing number of Americans, like Esau, are willing to sell their birthrights of freedom and liberty for bread and a bowl of lentil stew.
We are becoming a nation with an insatiable taste for entitlements, a word almost unknown in the American lexicon a century ago. In doing so, we are migrating from individual reliance, which was the core of the American psyche, to collectivist thinking.
While there are appropriate times for cooperative effort — public safety and national defense being the most obvious — we are accelerating down Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Hayek argued that centralized economic planning, i.e., socialism, is incompatible with political democracy because the planners, the government, would eventually encroach on democracy and individual rights in order to achieve the planners’ goals.
Thus, Hayek states, “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers,” and “We must face the fact that the preservation of individual freedom is incompatible with a full satisfaction of our views of distributive justice.”
The demand for distributive justice is behind the demand for entitlements. If this utopian goal is achieved, no one will be rich or poor and everyone will have jobs, education, housing, food, and medical care provided for them by the government — but at what cost? The cost is measured, not only in dollars, but in freedom.
Isn’t this the mindset of the Israelites who wanted to return to Egypt instead of dying in the wilderness?
Americans are now standing at the Sea of Reeds. Do we turn toward pharaoh and Goshen or do we turn towards freedom and the Promised Land? The choice is ours.
A zesin Pesach.