The story of the exodus told at the Passover seder, in the view of Shalom Carmy, evokes two primary interpretations. According to the first—which is the one known to most American Jews—it is a “social and political” tale of “moving from slavery to freedom.” But according to a rich body of rabbinic commentary, the liberation from Egyptian servitude appears as a “prelude to the revelation at Sinai” and its attendant covenantal obligations. “Freedom,” in this understanding, “is to be cherished because it paves the way to divine law.” Carmy finds that the biblical text supports both attitudes, and seeks to reconcile them:
Having been commissioned to lead the people out of bondage, Moses returns to his brothers in Egypt. He tells them that God knows their sufferings and will fulfill his covenant with the patriarchs. He tells them, and he tells Pharaoh, to let the people go so that they may offer sacrifices in the desert. He does not yet tell the people that in the desert they will be introduced to a radically new religious commitment grounded in faithfulness to the covenant.
In other words, if all we had before us were the words God communicated to the people through Moses, even if these words were supplemented by what God told Abraham [in Genesis 15] about exile, oppression, and salvation, we would have heard much about the oppression and the toil from which God would rescue us, and we would know the promise of being restored to the Land of Israel. We would have heard nothing binding the exodus to the giving of the law.
What the standard social-political reading of the exodus leaves out is not only the transcendent experience of Sinai. The social-political reading also fails to confess that liberation alone, without the transcendent dimension, does not ennoble or sensitize one to the plight of others. The slaves whom Moses encounters at the beginning of his mission are not yet prepared for the heroic, all-encompassing, and commanding voice of Sinai. In the first days and years that follow Sinai, they may be prepared to respond to the divine reminder, in the laws of Exodus, that they were sojourners in Egypt—but they are not yet able to integrate into their moral identity the degradation of having been enslaved. That integration is accomplished 40 years later, when Moses speaks to their children in Deuteronomy.
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