As the Jewish world prepares for Pesach, which begins next Monday night with the first Seder, it is impressive to note a major difference in emphasis between essential documents that focus on the centrality of freedom.
Passover celebrates salvation of a slave crew by the Ultimate Judge. Its four cups recall four terms used in the Bible to describe God's redemption of the Israelites. Nowhere in the texts associated with the Exodus is there mention of a right to freedom. Indeed, God demands of Pharaoh that the Israelites be sent from Goshen in order to serve the Almighty. While the Holiday of Matzoh commemorates the departure from Egyptian bondage, nowhere does the text suggest that freedom from servitude is a right. The haggadah, the traditional document that is reread at each seder, stresses several themes: the endurance of the Jewish people against all who would do them harm, the progress from pagan roots to monotheistic belief, the escape from servitude, and the power of God against all enemies. No where does the haggadah declare the right of the ancient ancestors, of modern Jews or of any people to live free.
The American Declaration of Independence proposes that the people of the united States of America hold a God-given right to Truth, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. How is it that two documents that are studied so earnestly time and again have such different approaches to freedom. How is it that the declaration repeatedly identifies a human right to freedom and a further right to remove the shackles of oppression, while the Bible does not even mention a right at all?
Clearly Jews are taken by both documents. The history of the Jewish people in the United States reflects deep reverence for the maintenance of human rights. Jews helped to fund the American revolution. Jews battled alongside countrymen of every ethnic and religious heritage to protect American freedoms. Jewish martyrs were among the first to die in the battle for racial freedom during the heady years of the Civil Rights marches. Jews founded not only Bnai Brith and the Anti-defamation League, primarily to protect their own interests, but also the NAACP. Protecting rights is endemic to Jewish belief.
There is no mention of rights in the Bible; likely as there is no term for rights in proper Hebrew. The term generally used to mean rights is zechut. It is best translated as merits or privileges, not as rights. In that word lies the fundamental difference between the Jewish perspective and the American perspective that the Jewish people has come to cherish. Rights are natural entities that exist because people exist. They are not given but arise from the very existence of humankind. Merits and privileges, by contrast, are earned. In Judaism we believe in privileges that are earned through our acceptance of the responsibilities that are the core and the protecting force of a free nation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were a slave people released from hardship that showed signs of a strong tendency to anarchy. To have allowed anarchy to determine their future, as seen in ongoing bickering during forty years of wandering the Sinai, would have doomed them. Indeed it is the Revelation at Sinai, to be celebrated about eight weeks from now, that transformed the motley people into an important nation. In their acceptance of the Sinaitic covenant the people pledged themselves to observing God's statutes and to hearing out the divine lessons – which the Sages of Jewish tradition reckon as ongoing Torah study.
The revolutionaries who founded the United States not only revolted against Britain. They postulated a greater, far deeper revolution. They invented the concept of human rights.
As Jews celebrate Passover next week they should also recall how fortunate they are to live in a land where their right to be Jewish is woven into the fabric of American existence.