Politics & Policy

Passover and Liberation in Iraq

Passover lessons for Iraq.

During the recent days of looting in Baghdad, I thought of Carl Jung, the tidy Swiss psychologist who labored to explain the amazing phenomenon of “synchronicity.” The looters happen to be an outstanding example of what he had in mind.

In Jung’s psychology, synchronicity means the tendency of our lives to include many apparently significant coincidences. He observed that “coincidences” happen too often to be meaningless. To illustrate, he writes of a patient who was telling him her dream about an Egyptian scarab — a kind of a beetle common in Egyptian art — when suddenly a real, live Swiss scarab flew in through his office window.

#ad#The “coincidence” I’ve been thinking about is that as liberated Iraqis joyfully sacked government offices and private shops in search of desks and air conditioners and whatever else they could lay hands upon, Jews were contemplating another, rather different liberation — that of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage more than 3,000 years ago, celebrated at Passover (falling this year on April 16).

As the news told of lawlessness in the streets of the Iraqi capital, I happened to be attending a lecture on Passover given by my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin. He was reviewing one of the themes of the Passover Haggadah, the ancient rabbinic text that recalls the Exodus from Egypt and which is recited by Jews around the world at their Passover seders.

The seder, a formal meal and discussion, is a peculiar event. Over matzah, Jews are commanded to talk about the Exodus, the liberation from slavery. Yet the conversation is minutely, even obsessively scripted. The irony is obvious. Passover is about freedom, but on no other occasion is a Jew more hemmed in by directions: The Haggadah tells you exactly what to say, when to drink your four cups of wine, when to wash your hands (twice) before eating, when to eat, when to stop eating, and what to say once you have stopped eating.

That’s freedom? But as the rabbi explained, true freedom is not to be confused with license. In anarchy one is truly enslaved — to your own passions and to the passions, often vicious, of other people. Indeed, upon being liberated from Egypt, the Jews immediately proceeded to Mt. Sinai where they accepted 613 commandments from their God — a rigorous system of dos and don’ts.

Freedom presupposes a moral structure. License presupposes nothing — it disdains any moral order — resulting in chaos of the kind we’ve seen in Baghdad. In Hebrew the same linguistic root that gives the word “freedom” also means “engraved” — written in stone, suggesting permanence, eternality, order, the opposite, it would seem, of freedom. But no! America’s Founders knew the relationship between order and freedom, which is why they viewed Judeo-Christian religion as a crucial underpinning of the system of government they created.

Is it a meaningless coincidence that Iraqis are learning this lesson just as Passover, which carries precisely this point as its main theme, is approaching? I don’t think so — because it’s another lesson of Passover that there are no such coincidences. Instead, there are patterns in history — or as Jung put it, there are synchronicities. It’s one of the basic requirements of Passover observance that a Jew is to regard himself as having personally been liberated from Egypt — because the Exodus is just a paradigm, a model, of all liberations that will ever be.

This is why the Haggadah focuses not at all on Moses, the actual hero of the Exodus, but rather on the much earlier figure of Abraham, who himself went down to Egypt, later received God’s original promise that Egyptian slavery would be followed by liberation, and had the promise engraved in his own flesh through the covenant of circumcision (see Genesis 10:17-20, 15:13-16, and 17:10-14).

This model of true liberation — into ordered freedom rather than chaos — was thus set. The Midrash, another ancient source of Jewish tradition, says it succinctly, “Whatever is written concerning Abraham is also written concerning his children” — his spiritual descendants, us.

Biblical tradition seeks to tell how the world works, elucidating history’s patterns. The paradigm established by Abraham provides that liberation only results in genuine freedom when it is accompanied by a clear moral order — apparently absent in Iraq despite the country’s professed religion. Without an ethical culture there can be only anarchy or tyranny.

For the Iraqis’ sake, some such order will need to be planted and nourished from outside. That will be America’s task, and not an easy one.

David Klinghoffer’s new book is The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, just out from Doubleday.

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