There are two distinct ways of understanding the meaning of Passover.
One of the recurrent motifs of the biblical narrative in the book of Exodus is God's desire to gain human recognition through amazing acts of power. The accounts of the enslavement in Egypt, the miracles of the 10 plagues, and the crossing of the sea all refer to the intended effect of God's show of power upon the Egyptians. The Egyptians will recognize God because they will experience His overwhelming might in history.
The Bible does not initially explain why it is important to know God other than in instrumental terms. The Lord negotiates through power - the power to humble the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt and destroy his army at the Red Sea.
The covenant relationship between God and Israel also is initially understood in terms of God's enormous power. The Lord promises to protect and provide for the needs of his people if they remain faithful to his commandments. If, however, they do not fulfill their obligations, they can expect to suffer serious and severe consequences.
The following midrash provides insight into why these particular Biblical narratives precede the giving of the 10 Commandments.
"Why were the 10 Commandments not said at the beginning of the Torah? They [the rabbis] give a parable. To what may this be compared? To the following: A king who entered a province said to the people: 'May I be your king?' But the people said to him: 'Have you done anything good for us that you should rule over us?' What did he do then? He built the city wall for them, he brought in the water supply for them, and he fought their battles. Then when he said to them: 'May I be your king?' They said to him: 'Yes, yes.' Likewise, God. He brought the Israelites out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent down the manna for them, brought up the well for them, brought the quails for them. He fought for them the battle with Amalek. Then he said to them: 'I am to be your king.' And they said to him: 'Yes, yes.'" (Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Vol. 2, Ch. V, Ex. 20:2)
The relationship between the themes of divine power and the exodus is reiterated throughout our liturgy, and specifically during the Passover seder. In respect to the commandment to remember the exodus from Egypt, we are told to remember God's saving power in history. For Jews throughout history, the exodus from Egypt expressed and reinforced their belief that God would eventually act to liberate Israel from its suffering.
Although the promise of divine action in history had a formative role in shaping Jewish Biblical faith, nevertheless, deep and searching questions were raised as a result of the destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people. If divine power defines the covenant, then does the destruction of the Temple and Israel's suffering indicate that God has broken the covenant, and replaced the covenantal people with another? Have the Jewish people been rejected by God, abandoned to the vicissitudes and arbitrariness of history?
In facing this agonizing dilemma, rabbis in the Talmud recognized the need for an alternative to a power-based theology by boldly moving Jewish images of God in a totally different direction. They set a radical theological and religious turn into motion by interpreting God's power as God's loving patience not to seek revenge against those who rebelled against him. The phrase "Who is as powerful as God" was interpreted to mean "Who is as silent as God / Who hears human abuse and indifference to God and does not respond?"
Why were they called men of the Great Synod? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. "[For] Moses had come and said: 'The great God, the mighty and the [awesome].' Then Jeremiah came out and said: 'Aliens are destroying his Temple. Where are his [awesome] deeds?' Hence he omitted [the attribute] 'awesome.' Daniel came and said: 'Aliens are enslaving his sons. Where are his mighty deeds?' Hence he omitted the word 'mighty.' But they came and said: 'On the contrary! Therein lie his mighty deeds that he suppresses his wrath, that he extends long-suffering to the wicked. Therein lie his [awesome] powers: For but for the fear of him, how could one [single] nation persist among the [many] nations!'" The rabbis moved Jewish spirituality in a new direction. Power was no longer to be the primary definitive element of the Jew's understanding and experience of God. For this cultural change to be achieved, the study of Torah had to become a formative value in Jewish spirituality. The Jew's task was to internalize the significance of the mitzvah. The act itself was to become the goal, not its external reward or punishment.
The exodus from Egypt precedes the challenges of Sinai because the demands of spiritual excellence cannot be addressed to people whose bodies are enslaved. You cannot speak to a person's soul unless social and political conditions enable that person to hear and respond to the appeal of spiritual aspirations. The concern with hunger, poverty and security must precede the call to become a holy nation.
The first model of Passover, the power-oriented model, can be called "theocentric" because of God's driving concern with being recognized as the supreme Lord of history. The alternative approach, the love-oriented model, shifts the focus from divine majesty to divine love. The Lord of history becomes "anthropocentric" when divine power yields to the divine concern with mediating God's reality in how people live.
The warrior God of the exodus from Egypt evolves into the compassionate teacher and educator. God no longer negotiates with Israel through power but through the promise of making God's presence manifest in human life.
Prof. Hartman is founder and co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute.