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David Segal: Guest opinion

David Segal
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

These words, inscribed on the Liberty Bell, first were inscribed on tablets of stone. They appear in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the book of Leviticus (25:10), spoken by Moses on God’s behalf to the Israelites during their desert journey. They were traveling from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land – not just a physical journey but a spiritual odyssey, as well – and this verse is but one example of the ethical foundation of what would be their new society.

It’s no accident that the Liberty Bell bears these words of Moses. For all the talk, especially during this election season, of America as a Christian country, the Hebrew Scriptures’ stories of Moses and the Israelites have been at the heart of our nation’s self-perception since the first Puritans left their oppressive homeland for a new land of freedom.



My favorite example of the centrality of the Exodus to the Founding Fathers comes from the conversation around creating the Great Seal of the United States in 1776. Benjamin Franklin suggested an image of Moses dividing the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army drowning in the closing walls of water. Thomas Jefferson wanted it to be the Israelites wandering in the desert, led by pillars of fire and cloud. They were outvoted, but the suggestions are striking, and the narrative of Moses leading the people from oppression to freedom has continued to animate America’s ethos.

Not only the founders but also leaders of abolition and the civil-rights movement looked to the Exodus not as history but as their story. Every generation finds itself in the Israelites, fighting against the pharaohs of their day, living out the words that became Thomas Jefferson’s motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”



That’s the point of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which began last night. Jews around the world (and throughout our valley!) sat around tables small and large to share in the seder, the ordered meal of Passover, contained in the Haggadah, the book used for the ritual. Every year, we retell the story of the Exodus from degradation to dignity, from subjugation to independence. Every year, the Haggadah commands us to feel that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, redeemed miraculously by God through the leadership of Moses.

Even as we commemorate the miraculous redemption, so too do we recall the grinding pace of the journey from Egyptian bondage to freedom in the Promised Land. Just because it was divinely ordained did not make it instant – or even complete. After the Israelites wandered 40 years, they still labored to conquer the land and set up a functional government and civil society. The Exodus was and is a process, the story of a people constantly trying to live up to their highest ideals.

So it is with our American story. The Founders understood what is still true today: Redemption is a process, building a nation and cultivating its citizenry an ongoing evolution. Hence Jefferson’s second inaugural words in 1805: “I shall need … the favor of that being … who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life.”

America wasn’t done in 1776 – it was just beginning its journey. Jefferson understood that, and he invoked the redeemer of the Israelites as a guide in leading his generation ever closer to America’s ideals. As Michael Walzer wrote in “Exodus and Revolution,” “The Exodus is a model for … a secular and historical account of ‘redemption,’ an account that does not require the miraculous transformation of the material world but sets God’s people marching through the world toward a better place within it.”

As the Jewish sages teach, “You are not obligated to complete the work; neither are you free to desist from it.” The story of America, like the story of the Jewish people, sees our mission in the world as always perfecting, never perfected. During the Passover seder last night, we said, “This year we are still slaves; next year, may all be free.” And if you pay close attention to the end of the national anthem, you’ll notice it’s a question: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

The message, I believe, is this: We are always marching toward redemption. We must strive to raise the banner of freedom in every generation, to unseat the pharaohs of our day – for every age has its pharaohs. In this season of spring and rebirth, let us recommit ourselves to continue marching together toward the vision of a world redeemed, a promised land.


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