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David Brooks: Exodus is about more than escape, liberation

  • New York Times
  • Published Friday, April 18, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Monday night was the start of Passover, the period when Jews celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from slavery into freedom.

This is the part of the Exodus story that sits most easily with modern culture. We like stories of people who shake off the yoke of oppression and taste the first bliss of liberty. We like it when masses of freedom-yearning people gather in city squares in Beijing, Tehran, Cairo or Kiev.

But that’s not all the Exodus story is, or not even mainly what it is. When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted to put Moses as a central figure on the Great Seal of the United States, they were not celebrating him as a liberator but as a re-binder.

It wasn’t just that he led the Israelites out of one set of unjust laws. It was that he re-bound them with another set of laws. Liberating to freedom is the easy part. Re-binding with just order and accepted compulsion is the hard part.

America’s founders understood that when you are creating a social order, the first people who need to be bound down are the leaders themselves.

The Moses of Exodus is not some majestic, charismatic, Charlton Heston-type hero who can be trusted to run things. He’s a deeply flawed person like the rest of us. He’s a poor speaker. He whines, and he’s sometimes angry and depressed. He’s meek.

The first time Moses tries to strike out against Egyptian oppression, he does it rashly and on his own, and he totally messes it up. He kills an Egyptian soldier cruelly mistreating a Hebrew slave and has to flee into exile.

But Moses eventually was to exemplify the quality of “anivut.” Anivut, Rabbi Norman Lamm once wrote, “means a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”

Just as leaders need binding, so do regular people. The Israelites in Exodus whine, they groan, they rebel for petty reasons. When they are lost in a moral wilderness, they immediately construct an idol to worship and give meaning to their lives.

But Exodus is a reminder that good laws can nurture better people. For example, they provide a comforting structure for daily life. If you are nervous about the transitions in your life, the moments when you go through a doorpost, literally or metaphorically, the laws will give you something to do in those moments and ease you on your way.

The laws tame the ego and create habits of deference by reminding you of your subordination to something permanent. The laws build community by anchoring belief in common practices. The laws moderate religious zeal; faith is not expressed in fiery acts but in everyday habits. The laws moderate the pleasures; they create guardrails that are meant to restrain people from going off to emotional or sensual extremes.

Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.

David Brooks writes for the New York Times News Service.

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