Passover, Particularism and Universalism | Opinion

The following essay is an excerpt from Mark Gerson's new book, The Telling: How Judaism's Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life, now out from St. Martin's Essentials.

The first thing that God says about people is that we are created in His image. This was a radically subversive claim. Ancient peoples generally held that royal elites were created in the image of their gods, and everyone else existed to serve them. In came the Torah, declaring that everyone is created in the image of God. And if everyone is created in the image of God, then everyone shares the most important part of who they are—meaning that, fundamentally, all people are created equal. But every idea, even one directly from God, needs a hospitable environment in order to flourish.

Jews all over the world will soon be reliving the experiences of their ancient ancestors by retelling the story of Exodus at the Passover Seder. The story notes that, first, the Israelites were a feuding family without a land and with only sporadic engagement with the other peoples. Then they became slaves in Egypt. In neither case did they have the opportunity to do much with the idea that all people are created in the image of God.

On the other hand, if the Exodus succeeded, the Israelites would be a free people—first in the desert and then in their own Land. They would have the opportunity to put the metaphysical idea of equality into practice. They would be able to construct a society as God dreamed of—one that would be not only a dwelling place for him, but also a light unto the nations. But this ambition had never been conceived before. How could such an unprecedented feat be realized? The 3,000-year-old story of Exodus offers an answer, which is especially relevant as we attempt to reconstruct our own society in our own time of great uncertainty.

With one word, "each," God provided the seminal instruction for creating a society that would cherish equality and, accordingly, human flourishing. There would be no group of elites with a close relationship to God who would instruct the lesser people. Each person would bear the responsibility of the collective. In that notion, democratic citizenship was born.

This act—both individual and national—contains the logic that resolves one of the most persistent and vexing questions humans face. It has been expressed everywhere, with the most widespread political and personal implications and, in turn, is probably the most frequently presented moral question in history. The question is, when multiple obligations meet limited resources: To whom am I responsible?

We have a variety of social affiliations, often manifested in our attachments to family, to friends, to community, to society, to the nation and to humankind. We can also be fans of the same team, veterans of the same unit, colleagues at the same company, descendants from the same land, alumni of the same school, participants in the same club, members of the same political party, congregants of the same house of worship, devotees of the same cause and infinitely more. The result of there being limited resources—meaning time, money and attention—and concurrently many affiliations is that our responsibilities seem to compete with and crowd each other out.

Consequently, the need to determine to whom we are responsible challenges us to this day—and sometimes, seemingly, all day long. Guidance is provided in Exodus. All obligation starts with an individual—"each man"—a unique, responsible, full individual created in the image of God. The individual then joins a household. The households, through the commitments they make together, form a community.

Passover Seder table
Passover Seder table Lisa J. Goodman/Contributor/Getty Images

Allegiances, Exodus explains, do not require trade-offs. Instead, they build on each other. Strong individuals create good families. Good families provide the bulwark for vibrant communities. Vibrant communities create healthy societies. Healthy societies enable great nations. And great nations inspire the world.

The notion that allegiances are mutually reinforcing is present throughout the rest of the Torah. For example, in Numbers, the gentile seer Balaam observes of the Jews: "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!" The good tents come first, and they are followed by great tabernacles. Later in Deuteronomy, Moses, when summarizing the obligations of the Torah, points out that one's first obligation is to family, then to city and, finally, then to the Land. To become impactful universalists, the Torah instructs mankind, we must first become great particularists.

This insight has resoundingly echoed throughout the generations. It was the Anglo-Irish philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke who perhaps most beautifully restated what Jews learned from Exodus. "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society," he wrote in the late 18th century, "is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind."

The Torah's insight further resonates with 21st-century social science. Married people, but particularly those with children, usually have more claims on their time than single people. One might think, thus, that the domestic responsibilities that married people have will make them less able to engage in civic and universalist activities than single people. Yet married people, especially those with children, both volunteer and vote at vastly higher rates than single adults.

Just as married people have obligations that single people do not, religious people have responsibilities that secular people do not. At the very least, this includes supporting faith-based institutions with time and money. Given the financial demands of religious charities, it might not be surprising that religious people give more to charity than do secular people. What is maybe surprising is that religious people give far more to secular charities than do secular people. Conditioned and habituated to give in the little platoons, religious people become stronger universalists.

Alexis de Tocqueville, likely the greatest observer of America, called our country a "nation of joiners." Two centuries later, that designation is still true—although there is significant variance in who joins. People of any religion are likelier to join groups than those who are unaffiliated.

The most ambitious Jewish vision—the messianic vision—involves the formation of Jewish identity along with the robust formation of other identities. The prophet Isaiah describes what will happen "on that day"—the day when the Messiah comes. The nations of the world—he enumerates Egypt, Israel and Assyria— will recognize the Lord. The groups will not merge into one universalist entity where distinctions and differences are erased. Instead, the Egyptians, Assyrians and Jews will remain distinct, as God says in Isaiah: "Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork and Israel my inheritance." The groups, in the presence of the Messiah, will remain separate and independent—but will worship the one God together.

It is by establishing strong and distinctive groups—of faith, of nation and of much else—that we cultivate the values and characteristics that make us, simultaneously, engaged and effective universalists, now and "in that day."

Mark Gerson is author of The Telling: How Judaism's Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life and co-founder of GLG.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.