To One Early 20th Century Rabbi Skeptical of Zionism, Passover Isn’t Simply A Celebration Of Freedom — It’s Also A Warning

Soldier seder. Image: Facebook/

For Jews, Passover is a time of liberation. The Exodus story tells the tale of a slave population liberated by divine intervention. It’s a story of hope for many persecuted peoples, including the Black Church in America, inspiring African American spirituals such as “Go Down Moses.”

It’s also a violent story, culminating with the plague of the slaying of first-born Egyptians finally convincing Pharaoh that the Israelites were more of a deficit than a benefit. It’s probably the most graphic and vicious depiction of divine violence in scripture.

In the Haggadah (the liturgical text used at the Passover Seder) Jews celebrate their freedom by telling that story. Since the founding of the state of Israel that story has had special resonance and challenging implications, in part because Jews were now sovereign, and in part because Jews now ruled over another people. The story of Passover is one of liberation into freedom. Told in one way, the story of the state of Israel is that too, but it’s also a story of limiting the freedom of others. How can the story be both a celebration of liberation and a warning against hegemony; a story of freedom and a story of unfreedom?

This year the incongruities are much more acute. Jews worldwide will sit at a Seder and tell this story while children starve in Gaza, while mothers become childless, while people become homeless, while the stench of death fills the spring air. They will sit and tell this story still traumatized by the ruthless murder of 1,200 in Israel (including both Israelis and non-Israelis). But it isn’t the blood of the sacrificial goat that stains their homes, it’s the blood of their families and comrades, hostages whose fate is still unknown, and of the 33,000 killed in Gaza so far. And it is the story of experiencing the fear of bombardment by another sovereign nation. What doeswhat canthis story teach us in this moment of tragedy, atrocity, and vengeance? 

A largely unknown Lithuanian rabbi from the early 20th century was keenly aware of the hazards of power and the inevitability of violence, even before the State of Israel was established. Aaron Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) was a rabbi, an essayist, a Hebraist, and a pacifist from a small town in the Bialystok region. Early in his career he wrote a lengthy essay called Herut (Liberation) published in 1906, just three years after the Kishinev pogrom and a year after the first Russian Revolution in 1905. 

The violence spreading in Europe would eventually lead to World War I and the deaths of millions of civilians. This essay was also written shortly after the death of Theodore Herzl in 1904 and the rising popularity of Zionism, which Tamares was initially sympathetic to, having attended the Fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900. But he had returned disillusioned with many things about the meeting, including the reflexive nationalism he witnessed and his skepticism in nationalism as an arm of violence and dispossession. He subsequently abandoned the Zionist project.

Some of this may have seeped into his essay which depicts Egypt as the prototypical imperial power and the Israelites as an enslaved population unable to fully grasp the implications of their own servitudeand thus unable to psychologically liberate themselves from it. 

For Tamares, the Exodus narrative isn’t merely a story about liberation, but more importantly a warning to the Israelites and their progeny: “Don’t become like Pharaoh,” which for him meant “don’t dominate others.” Tamares writes¹:

All of this [the story of the Exodus] can be used to explain the final plague in Egypt, in which God executes death [to the first born of Egypt]. This judgment was deployed by Godself, as the Haggadah explains: “I passed over the night, I, and not an emissary.” This seems odd as God could have enabled the Israelites to wreak vengeance on the Egyptians. However, God did not want to even show the Israelites how to use the power of the fist, even in a moment of defending themselves against the evil ones. This is because, at that moment, while they would indeed be defending themselves against the aggressors, in the end they would have become aggressors.

Therefore, God took great pains to prevent the Israelites from enacting any vengeance against the evil ones; so much so that he prohibited them from even witnessing it. Thus, the [violent] act was deployed “in the middle of the night” in the darkest hour of the night. God also warned the Israelites not to leave their houses, all to separate them from this destructive act, even to witness it passively.

In fact, God prohibited Israel from witnessing God’s violence to prevent the violence that is within Israel to be released. Because once that violence is released there is no longer the ability to distinguish between the righteous (the innocent) and the evil (the guilty), and the one who is the defender (the recipient of violence) will become the aggressor (the perpetrator of violence). 

“And all of you should not leave your houses until the morning” (Ex 12:22)….that you should not become the destroyer. This means that by distancing oneself from participating in the vengeance against Egypt one is prevented from unleashing the destroyer (violence) that is within you.

Tamares knew that violence lurked beneath the façade of servitude, as it has throughout history. And Ze’ev Jabotinsky was quite clear in his famous essay “The Iron Wall” that Arabs will surely revolt against Jewish sovereignty in their land. And there may even be justice in enabling those persecuted to act out in vengeance against their persecutors, as we saw in cases of Jews liberated from concentration camps attacking German officers. This is the way of the world.

But Tamares argues that the Jews as carriers of Torah come to the world to counter that inclination, and the Exodus story is its quintessential exemplar. Yes, violence had to be done for the Israelites to be liberated, in order for the master-slave dynamic to collapse. But it was God who would enact that violence, not the Israelites. In fact, as we’ve seen, God forbade the Israelites from witnessing the violence, in order to prevent them from becoming aggressors themselves. 

In this sense, for Tamares the story is as much a warning to Jews as a celebration of Jewish freedom. There is nothing to prevent a nation, any nation, from becoming like ancient Egypt as depicted in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, for Tamares, that is the great occupational hazard of nationalism. Tamares knew that as he was suffering its initial consequences in 1905, and he knew that Zionism held the potential as well. In a later work after World War I, Knesset Israel and the Wars of the Nations, he goes as far as to argue that a “national homeland (erez moledet) is idolatry.”

Jews will sit down to a Seder this year with many mixed feelings. The trauma of October 7; the humiliation, the anger, the desire for retribution, and justifications for the horrific violence in Gaza to innocent victims. And there may be added enthusiasm to utter, toward the Haggadah’s finale, just before the door is opened to welcome Elijah the Prophet: “Pour out Your wrath to the nations who do not know You.” But Tamares’ teaching should also be present: “Do not become like Pharaoh.” Dissonant as it may sound, in Tamares’ view, it’s the gift that Jews as inheritors of Torah are meant to bring to the world.

One cannot destroy Pharaoh by becoming Pharaoh. Normalcy cannot come at the price of this lesson. Because if it does, Tamares proclaims later in this essay, “all of human civilization is in peril.” A world of Pharaohs is not desirable. Nor sustainable. Violence does not redeem. It only enslaves.

¹ Aaron Shmuel Tamares, Herut chapter 6, p. 44 [translation by Shaul Magid].