April 10, 2024
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April 10, 2024
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‘With Liberty and Justice’

Excerpting: “With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey From Egypt to Sinai” by Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn. Maggid Books, Koren Publishers Jerusalem. 2018. Hardcover. ISBN-10: 1592645011. $24.95.

I have spent all of my professional life in the law – proposing and enacting laws as a Connecticut state senator and United States senator, enforcing laws as Connecticut’s attorney general, and representing and counseling private clients as a practicing lawyer. It is surely possible that I would have followed the same career path had I been raised in a religion not as “law-centric” as Judaism is, but I think it would have been less likely.

When I was growing up, my parents and my rabbis taught me that our lives are a gift from God, the Creator, and with this gift comes a covenantal obligation – a legal obligation – to serve God by living according to the laws and values that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai.

Of course, you don’t have to be a lawyer to serve God according to those laws and values. But if you are raised to believe that law is necessary to create justice and security in society, which gives your own life purpose, it is natural to want to be an active participant in the larger legal system. This was true for me particularly, growing up in America where the narrative of law and history closely overlaps the Jewish narrative of law and history.

America’s Puritan-Pilgrim founders repeatedly emphasized that their mission was to build not just a new country, but a new Jerusalem of freedom and law. These founders were also influenced by Calvinism, which put the Hebrew Bible at the center of their faith. Their fidelity to the ideas of law and justice, as taught in the Bible, are reflected in the constitution they painstakingly crafted. And the ongoing interpretation and application of the constitution through laws adopted by legislators and opinions issued by judges closely parallels the application and interpretation of the Torah and Ten Commandments by the rabbis through the centuries.

My education in Jewish history and law preceded my broader education in general history and law, and surely shaped my decision to become a lawyer. I am certainly not unique in this regard, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of Jews who have been and are lawyers.

When I went to Yale Law School, I was taught to see the law first and foremost as an expression of our values – a reflection of what we consider right and wrong – but also of our aspirations for ourselves and our society. It represents the ideals and goals we have for ourselves and our country, much as the commandments and values of God-given law have done for thousands of years.

We don’t always live up to the law, but it provides a standard for behavior. It makes us better than we would otherwise be.

The longest-ever running show on Broadway is The Phantom of the Opera, a polished and engaging musical that explores a wide range of human emotions. It opened in 1988, and continues to play to sellout crowds. But my family and I – and, I imagine, you and yours – have been performing in a dramatic production with a far longer run. It is the Passover Seder, presented annually for more than three thousand years. Every Passover Eve, all across the world, members of our extended family prepare for their roles as actors, singers, and storytellers. We provide “dinner and a show ” as we tell the story of the liberation of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Although every nationality and every family makes individual adaptations, and nuances its version of the story, and though each may sing the text to different tunes or anchor the feast with different cui- sines, the Passover Seder retains its shared meaning. It is a celebration of God’s love for humanity and humanity’s God-given right to be free.

Passover was not ordained to be a singular, isolated moment in our national calendar. It is part of a cycle. The Exodus was the key with which our potential as a nation was unlocked – but what followed was the doorway to realizing that potential. Every year, for over three thousand years, Jews have counted the days and weeks that lead from Passover, the Festival of Liberation, to Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Law. Passover is only the first act in the drama. Unfortunately, despite the appeal and success of the Passover “production,” most people do not remain for the second act: Shavuot. They leave the theater, as it were, before the entire story has been told, missing the point of the annual journey from slavery in Egypt to the Law at Sinai.

The Israelites were not simply released from bondage to be free in the desert. They were not freed to be absorbed into Egyptian society. Their liberation had a purpose, already expressed in Moses’ first con- versation with Pharaoh: “Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness’” (Ex. 5:1). Later, Moses repeatedly transmits God’s request to Pharaoh: “Let My people go that they may serve Me” (9:1). As the Israelites would soon learn, the purpose of the Exodus was for them to serve God’s values by observing God’s laws. Their ultimate destination was the Holy Land of Israel, but their first stop was Sinai, where they would receive the Law, and, with it, their national objective and destiny.

In this, the Israelites were unusual. Their national purpose pre- ceded their territorial existence – their values were conferred before their homeland – because the Revelation at Sinai provided the Children of Israel with the values they, and all the world, needed to build a new kind of just society.

Passover and Shavuot are two acts in the same drama whose plot explores how liberty and law must be joined to create justice. The immoral pre-diluvian society of Noah, and the years of Pharaoh’s cruel rule in Egypt, demonstrated what happens when people enjoy liberty without law.

Without law, freedom cannot guarantee anyone a secure or good life. That is the point of the second act, Shavuot, in which the rest of the story unfolds, as you will see, if you stay in your seat and experience it.

By Joe Lieberman

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