Pesach gave us freedom from Pharaoh.
Shavuot gives us freedom to be a People of God.
The move from slavery to the Land of Israel entails a classic paradigm shift. Leaving a tyrant does not guarantee freedom. One may exchange one form of tyranny for another.
Some might read the stories in the Torah and imagine that the Children of Israel do just that. Instead of serving Pharaoh, they are instructed to serve God. At times, the character in the Torah named God may seem arbitrary or emotional, subject to jealousy and anger. But God is bigger than any story can describe. The Israelites, our ancestors, exchanged a human tyrant for a new idea.
What really changes for the Children of Israel? What makes the Exodus, a bold revolutionary act, even possible?
At a recent clergy gathering of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) we discussed a passage from Walter Brueggemann’s Hope within History that provides insight into the massive shift that the sparked the Exodus.
Brueggemann points to the moment when the children of Israel finally cry out: "…the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God…and God took notice of them.” (Exodus 2:23-24). This passage takes place long after the enslavement. In fact, it happens some time after Moses runs away from Egypt to Midian. All this time, the people have not sent up a cry.
Brueggemann teaches us that people may not even notice their own oppression. We may endure despite terrible hardships without uttering a simple cry. In this first outcry, which has no destination and does not invoke the name of God at all, Brueggemann sees the beginnings of awareness:
“The outcry is an announcement that Israel would no longer bow before the imperial ideology.”
The paradigm is shifting. The old ideology no longer holds. The slaves understand that they are part of a community. They recognize that this community has power to stand up to the oppressive system.
Yet it is a long time still before the people have the courage and the wherewithal to leave.
The second step to the Exodus is the recognition that the cry has been heard. Though the people have not sent up a prayer addressed to anyone in particular, they come to understand that God has heard their cry. This gives them confidence, knowing that they have allies, and that there is another ideology, which Brueggemann refers to as “faith formation:”
“Faith formation is faith in this God evoked in this community which lies outside the system…Israel’s narrative, revolutionary as it is, asserts that the decisive source of life is fully outside the regnant system.”
Lest we think that the Exodus completes the paradigm shift, Brueggeman points to Sinai as the culmination of the new order. It is at Sinai, when the Children of Israel receive Torah in its broadest sense, that a new ideology of justice and freedom is crystallized. Torah, with its rules and limits — not only for the lone individual but for everyone, including the powerful as well — offers us structure and direction.
“The alternative of Sinai is not individualistic anarchy in which every one does ‘what is right in his or her own eyes’ (Judges 21:25). Rather, there is the forming of a new political entity which provides standing ground for rejecting the old political realities of Pharaoh and Egypt.”
This is why the holiday of Shavuot, so neglected and misunderstood in our culture, is essential to the fulfillment of the idea of freedom. As Brueggeman says,
“Torah is practice and implementation of social imagination, a dream of how to order life in new modes, faithful to the gift of the Exodus.”
Today we are just five days away from Shavuot. We have five days to prepare to stand at Sinai, together, united as a community with a vision of freedom and the path of Torah to lead us there. On Shavuot we rededicate ourselves not only to the ideals of freedom and justice, but to actively create a world of freedom and justice.
May we all see one another at Sinai!
***Among the many resources for thinking about Torah and Shavuot and the connection to action, I recommend T’ruah, formerly Rabbis for Human Rights North America. I am particularly proud of a text study in honor of Hyatt Hotel Workers, who have declared a global boycott of Hyatt Hotels (see the document for hotels that are not under boycott because of union contracts that are currently in force).