When Moses went to Sinai, he made us Jews

As Pesach approaches, many of us are asking ourselves: How can we celebrate our liberation while feeling the pain and anxiety of the recent acts of terrorism and fanatic violence? What possible meaning can the words "Next Year in Jerusalem" have when Jews fear riding on buses or walking the streets of Jerusalem?

We believed in our hearts that our return to Jerusalem would usher in a period when Jews would no longer feel the anxiety of homelessness and powerlessness, when the Jewish psyche would regain a sense of security and trust.

It appears, however, that the idea of redemption in terms of total security and safety is more of a messianic hope than a historical fact. In this sense, the prayer "Next year in Jerusalem" still remains unfulfilled because we realize that returning home — in the fullest sense — remains an aspiration and not a description of our lived reality.

Nevertheless, we continue to celebrate the holiday of Pesach and to retell the great drama of liberation that marks the birth of our people. The significance of this lies, I believe, in its deep formative effect on Jewish consciousness.

The story of this founding moment of our history combines two countervailing motifs: a great hope for redemption, and a profound understanding of the pain and suffering of unredeemed history.

Jewish history and Jewish memory begin with the words: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." The first memory engraved in our souls is that of slavery and exploitation, of the humiliation and degradation of being subject to the arbitrary will of a political despot.

"A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). Despotism cannot be healed by finding favor or by appeasement. The abuses of power are endemic to the human condition. History may always give rise to new pharaohs who seek power without limits, who feel no moral compunction in reducing human beings to objects. The story of Passover shatters any romantic illusion about the inherent goodness of human nature and history.

However, our movement from Egypt to Sinai — from the cruel despotism of Pharaoh to the hopeful vision of Moses — informs the harsh reality of human oppression with the dream of becoming a holy people.

As long as we maintain Moses' dream, as long as we understand the significance of commandment, of law and of justice and we don't lose sight of what human life can and should be, we can face the realities of human history without despair.

Tell your children the story of Pharaoh and Egypt. Do not romanticize life or deny the reality of exploitation and injustice. But, at the same time, bring them to Sinai, to the place where a nation of slaves heard a call to aspire to holiness and justice.

Throughout Jewish history, we never revelled in the degradation of Egypt because we held on to the dream of Sinai and Jerusalem. Despite our bitter experiences of hatred and moral ugliness, our psyches were not defined by our suffering. Our longing for Jerusalem was the expression of our dream that one day the sword would be turned into the plowshare.

In recent history, the rebuilding of Israel and Jerusalem embodies the sense of hope that has always nurtured us as a people. The state of Israel attests to our strength to defy the pharaohs of the 20th century by our decision to become a visible — and vulnerable — member of the community of nations. The Jewish people refused to define itself as a persecuted victim. Instead we chose to build a homeland in a world where evil and violence continue to defile the human spirit. This courageous act shows that moral aspiration and hope can transcend the memory of suffering in shaping our destiny.

As in the past, so today, we cannot let the terrorists and the Assads of history become the focal points of our identity. No one knows if suicide bombings will end or whether another madman will blow himself up in a crowded bus or pedestrian crossing. We are told there is no absolute security against maniac terrorists.

There is, however, one form of security that our enemies have never been able to destroy. It is our power to remember and to tell liberation stories; to pursue freedom and justice even from the margins of history; to sing "next year in Jerusalem" in spite of insecurity and vulnerability.

We must never forget Egypt; we must never forget the Holocaust. But we must remember that what makes us Jews is the fact that Moses brought us to Sinai.

We must, as always, teach our children that Jewish identity is not defined by the memory of suffering but by the prophetic challenge to become a holy and just people — by our continuing to sing "next year in Jerusalem."