By Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

The Biblical story of Pesach, the story and the very notion of exodus from Egypt, stand at the root of what is today known as "liberation theology," faith ideas about a Divine imperative to free the slave, the weak, the small, the few, from the master, the strong, the giant, the many. From here, many peoples throughout the developing world have conceived ideas of rebellion against colonizing powers; those struggling for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rightfully also recognize parallels between the oppression of the Israelites, and the horrors of the occupation -- and the Divine imperative to end the occupation and seek true peace.

Where liberation theology often fails, however, is in forgetting the completion of the Passover story: Shavuot. The Israelites were not freed from Egypt to wander the desert in some imagined anarchic bliss. They were freed to receive Torah, and be made a people. Exodus leads to Sinai, Passover leads to Shavuot, freedom leads to law and obligation. 

Thus, the holiday of Passover doesn't truly end until seven weeks later, when the Jewish community remembers our stand at Sinai, before the ineffable power of the Creator. Each night of the intervening weeks, we count the Omer, a small reminder of the struggle in which the Israelites were engaged to leave behind the vestiges of slavery and the mindset of subjugation, and prepare themselves for the awesome responsibility of living godly lives. This is where liberation theology is often half-hearted -- it is often very strong on liberation and freedom, but far too weak on law and obligation.

The Palestinians are right to demand their liberation; the Jewish people need look no further than their own history to understand the wrong of the occupation. But it must not be forgotten that Israel is also right to demand the end of violence coming from some segments of the Palestinian community. Liberation is not enough -- we have also the obligation to live ethical lives.

Both sides, then, must recognize the humanity of the other, and work together toward their mutual freedom, their mutual obligations. We learn in Exodus 12 that the Israelites went up from Egypt with a mixed multitude -- they were not alone as they shook off their oppression, and, we can presume, they were not alone at Sinai.

God does not speak only to the Jews. The Creator speaks to all Creation, calls on each of us, individually and in our communities, to live in freedom and responsibility. Israel and the Palestinians must talk with each other, in honesty and mutual respect, and achieve a durable peace agreement, if either people is to know real liberation.

In this season of celebration, we wish all Jewish communities and all Palestinian communities true freedom, and we await a new Sinai that will bring law and justice to us all.

Suggested Passover activities:

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf serves on Brit Tzedek’s Honorary Board and Rabbinic Cabinet.  He has spent his life drawing the lines between religious imperative and social action, insisting in both word and deed that Judaism calls us to pursue justice on all fronts. Rabbi Wolf's teachings have played a formative role for many thousands of Jews.

In the 1940s, Rabbi Wolf served as the American representative to Brit Shalom, joining other renowned Jewish leaders including Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and Henrietta Szold in calling for "Jewish-Arab cooperation, as both necessary and possible." In 1949, he was instrumental in founding Israel's Givat Haviva Educational Institute, created to educate for peace, democracy, coexistence and social solidarity.
In 1973, Rabbi Wolf served as founding chair of the American Jewish movement "Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations." In its first public statement, Breira called for Israel to make territorial concessions and recognize the legitimacy of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people in order to achieve lasting peace.
Rabbi Wolf was invited to address the United Nations' 1989 "Conference on the Question of Palestine," and he continues today to be an outspoken advocate for a just and tenable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He believes that the only possible solution, he said in a recent speech, lies in "recognizing each other, and defining each other with not just the right to exist, but the necessity to exist."
Seeing his role primarily as that of a teacher, Rabbi Wolf has been the rabbi of Illinois's oldest synagogue, Kehilath Anshe Maarav Isaiah Israel, in Chicago, since 1980 (emeritus since 2000) and taught at many universities including Yale, where he served eight years as Jewish chaplain. Considered by many to be the finest English stylist in the American rabbinate, Rabbi Wolf is the author of several books. He is also a founding editor of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.


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