With the approach of Passover next week, it is worth recalling how central the Exodus story once was in America’s self-understanding. The story of the Jewish people being redeemed from slavery and founding a new nation was not merely a metaphor for Americas’ earliest generations. It was something more. It provided the young republic with a sense of its self and its identity.
Shortly after 9/11, I worked with the philanthropist Lee Hendler and several others in crafting a Thanksgiving Haggadah. A Haggadah is the book or guide that Jewish families use in conducting the order of the Passover seder. The thought of making a Thanksgiving Haggadah, based on the Jewish Haggadah, seemed natural for many reasons, one of the chief ones being that the Puritans saw themselves, like the Israelites of old, as fleeing oppression and founding a new nation -- a new Israel, as they themselves put it.
In the Passover seder, the central part is the “Maggid” – the story of the exodus from Egypt. Jewish parents are expected to explain to their children how Israel emerged from the humiliation of slavery to the glory of freedom. Included in this part of the seder are midrashic interpretations of Deuteronomy 26: 5-8: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful, and numerous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.”
When William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Colony, reflects on the Pilgrims safe passage from Europe to America, his diary echoes this Biblical passage: “May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice, and looked on their adversity, etc…. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, show how he hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor” (see Freedom's Feast, p. 12- 13). When Bradford disembarked from the Mayflower, he quoted Jeremiah, “Come, let us declare in Zion the word of God.”
This uniquely biblical self-understanding of America-as-the-New Israel was not only a manifestation of the Puritan psyche. It was also characteristic of America’s Founding Fathers, notwithstanding their deistic or secular bent. For example, at the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams were appointed to a committee to design the great seal of the United States. Remarkably, Franklin and Jefferson, who were hardly religious fundamentalists, selected the Exodus story as emblematic of the nation’s story. The seal that they proposed had Moses standing at the shore with the Red Sea parting, and Pharaoh looming with a sword raised in his hand. Franklin instructed further that the design should have “rays from a pillar of fire in the clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.” The motto that would accompany the seal: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Their seal was not, in the event, adopted; but it is highly noteworthy that the biblical story was found to be compelling to these leading minds of the early American republic. In May of 1776, John Adams wrote in a letter to Abigail Adams that he was reflecting on the “parallel between the Case of Israel and that of America, and between the Conduct of Pharaoh and that of George.” He concluded: “I feel an Awe upon my Mind, which is not easily described.”
Decades later, at the close of his First Inaugural Address, President Jefferson also found himself drawn to the story of the Exodus, as he called for “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”
The United States as a new Israel has been an important element in what came to be known as “American exceptionalism.” It was thought that just like the Biblical Covenant with Israel, so too was there a covenant between God and America. Not unlike the older covenant, America would be a beacon of freedom for the oppressed, and that something more was expected of America. As Abraham Lincoln put it, America would serve as “the last best hope of earth.” Echoes of this sentiment were still to be found in the presidential rhetoric of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan -- both of whom thought of America as (quoting Winthrop) a “city on a hill.”
It’s no secret that the notion of American exceptionalism has come under severe attack by liberals and progressives. Barack Obama gave voice to the Left’s critique when in 2008 he declared to an audience in Berlin: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Indeed, it has been the explicit goal of many progressive thinkers to wean America from its misbegotten belief in its own exceptionalism, to sever the nation from a more ancient story of redemption and renewal, and to reconstruct the nation’s identity upon something new.
There is surely some irony to be found in the fact that President Obama’s first presidential trip to Israel will take place on the eve of Passover. The President has been as cool towards Israel as he has been towards the notion of American exceptionalism. It could well be that the two denials go together. In progressive circles, the historical ties Americans have traditionally felt towards the State of Israel are considered to be as disreputable as the nation’s hidebound attachment to its own biblical roots. It could be said that Obama no more understands the biblical roots of America than he understands the biblical roots of Israel, at least according to a Washington Post story on how Obama’s trip to Israel is an effort to repair this perception.
The Jewish celebration of Passover strongly resonates with a sense of renewal and new beginnings. It would be fitting if the President’s upcoming trip to the State of Israel were itself to mark such a new beginning -- an occasion to recall America’s own biblical affinities as well as the deep affinity between the new Israel and the “Israel of old.” The parallels between the case of Israel and that of America are closer than we may think.