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Empathy and solidarity with the political, social, and economic conditions of the Jewish people are necessary conditions for any “leap of faith” or spiritual journey within Judaism. We do not approach the sacred moment of the Sinai revelation as individuals. We hear the word of God and receive the Ten Commandments as “we.” Heresy in Judaism is separating oneself from the collective experience of the Jewish people. The “wicked son” of the Passover Haggadah is he who addresses other Jews as “you” (“you and not him”). Jewish heresy is an existential state of excluding oneself from the destiny of the Jewish people.
Passover thus begins the yearly celebration of our collective memory by situating the individual within the historic drama of the Jewish people. Passover leads into Shavuot, the time of receiving the Ten Commandments, the normative way of life known as Torah and mitzvot. This festival is essentially a holiday of freedom, the freedom of living a disciplined, normative way of life.
While identification with the suffering in Egypt is necessary for developing a collective consciousness, the memory of suffering is not in itself constitutive of Jewish identity. Although our oppression in Egypt could have become the predominant motif of our collective identity, the tradition took the experience of victimization and transformed it into a moral impulse. At Sinai, the memory of Egypt becomes a compelling reason for aspiring to the collective ideals of justice and love and becoming a holy people. “And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19; see Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:17). At Sinai, we are challenged by God to take responsibility for our daily lives and to aspire to the freedom of being claimed by a normative vision of life.
Freedom involves the capacity for self-transcendence, for being claimed by what is other than myself. For Jews, the law is not a source of guilt, as the Christian apostle Paul claimed. We are not paralyzed by the elaborate structure of Halakhah and mitzvot. On the contrary, the Law (our Torah) gave us a sense of personal dignity — the dignity of beings accountable before God. At Sinai, we heard a God address us as responsible moral agents in spite of our human vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It is for this reason that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is so central to Jewish life. Yom Kippur provides us with hope and renewed conviction to begin anew and not to revel in the failures of the past.