Pho­to by tom coe on Unsplash

In Philadel­phia, on New Year’s Day, 1808, Absa­lom Jones knew free­dom had not yet been ful­ly achieved. But there was still much to be grate­ful for. 

Born into slav­ery in 1746, Jones was freed on the cusp of mid­dle age, at age thir­ty-eight. Pur­su­ing a career as a priest, he was the first African Amer­i­can ordained by the Epis­co­pal Church in 1802

Address­ing his con­gre­ga­tion on the day in which Congress’s law pro­hibit­ing the impor­ta­tion of slaves, passed the year pri­or, final­ly took effect, Jones recalled anoth­er moment in which the promise of lib­er­ty began to shine forth. The his­to­ry of the world shows us,” he thun­dered, that the deliv­er­ance of the chil­dren of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and dis­tressed nations, as the deliv­er­er of the inno­cent, and of those who call upon his name.” Like in ancient times, He has seen the anguish which has tak­en place, when par­ents have been torn from their chil­dren, and chil­dren from their par­ents, and con­veyed, with their hands and feet bound in fet­ters.” Jones him­self had lived through such hor­rors. Ear­li­er in his life, his mas­ter had sold his moth­er and sib­lings, but kept him. 

But now was a time, Jones reas­sured his lis­ten­ers in this Thanks­giv­ing Ser­mon,” to rec­og­nize that divine sal­va­tion was at hand. Once again, God has heard the prayers that have ascend­ed from the hearts of his peo­ple; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and cho­sen peo­ple the Jews, come down to deliv­er our suf­fer­ing coun­try­men from the hands of their oppres­sors.” Now was an occa­sion, he con­clud­ed, to give thanks unto the Lord: let us call upon his name, and make known his deeds among the peo­ple. Let us sing psalms unto him and talk of all his won­drous works.”

Every year, at the Passover seder, the Jew­ish sto­ry of lib­er­a­tion from Egypt – a tale which inspired Absa­lom Jones and count­less oth­ers – is retold. Chil­dren, par­ents, and grand­par­ents sit togeth­er. Psalms of thanks­giv­ing are sung to God, in grat­i­tude for His lib­er­a­tion of the oppressed mil­len­nia ago and in the hope of the ulti­mate future deliv­er­ance. We read of tyrants defeat­ed, dis­cuss the replace­ment of enslave­ment by rev­e­la­tion, and we set our sights on the Promised Land. 

Wash­ing­ton him­self reflect­ed the impact of not only Jew­ish ideas, but of Jews them­selves on the Amer­i­can project.

In The Promise of Lib­er­ty: A Passover Hag­ga­da you will find, along­side the tra­di­tion­al Hag­gadah text, how Amer­i­can abo­li­tion­ists and artists, Pil­grims and pres­i­dents, rab­bis and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, jazz musi­cians and gen­er­als found inspi­ra­tion in the Exo­dus sto­ry. From Sojourn­er Truth to the strug­gle to free Sovi­et Jew­ry, Har­ri­et Tub­man to Har­ry Tru­man, Mark Twain to Mar­tin Luther King Jr., the Jew­ish sto­ry of redemp­tion has inspired Amer­i­cans of all back­grounds, from the country’s incep­tion to today.

In his jour­nal entry dat­ed Decem­ber 17, 1773, the day after the Boston Tea Par­ty, John Adams wrote in his diary that if the colonists were to resign them­selves to tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion, they would be sub­ject­ing our­selves and our Pos­ter­i­ty for­ev­er to Egypt­ian Taskmas­ters.” Even the British press lament­ed King George III’s mis­treat­ment of his sub­jects across the pond, with one paper warn­ing that if Eng­land did not make peace with the colonists, she would face the wrath of the God of Bat­tles” who over­threw Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.” 

Amidst the harsh­ness of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, the physi­cian and edu­ca­tor Ben­jamin Rush wrote to his friend the attor­ney Patrick Hen­ry in 1778 lament­ing that while they had suc­cess­ful­ly passed through the Red Sea, A drea­ry wilder­ness is still before us, and unless a Moses or a Joshua are raised up in our behalf, we per­ish before we reach the promised land.”

Of course, Amer­i­ca found its Moses and Joshua in the form of Gen­er­al George Washington. 

Wash­ing­ton him­self reflect­ed the impact of not only Jew­ish ideas, but of Jews them­selves on the Amer­i­can project. As Pres­i­dent, he wrote to the Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion in Savan­nah, Geor­gia, with the invo­ca­tion May the same won­der-work­ing Deity, who long since deliv­er­ing the Hebrews from their Egypt­ian Oppres­sors plant­ed them in the promised land — whose prov­i­den­tial agency has late­ly been con­spic­u­ous in estab­lish­ing these Unit­ed States as an inde­pen­dent nation — still con­tin­ue to water them with the dews of Heav­en and to make the inhab­i­tants of every denom­i­na­tion par­tic­i­pate in the tem­po­ral and spir­i­tu­al bless­ings of that people…” 

Through the sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of Amer­i­ca, the Passover sto­ry has always been present. The abo­li­tion­ist poet Eliz­a­beth Mar­garet Chan­dler won­dered, Are slav­ery and oppres­sion aught more just/​Than in the days of Moses?” One of Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s final wish­es was to take a men­tal flight by Egypt” and watch a frac­tious group of slaves trans­form into a uni­fied nation. George Bush spoke of the truths of Sinai” that sus­tain our nation­al life. To Barack Oba­ma, the sto­ry of per­se­ver­ance amidst per­se­cu­tion, and faith in God and the Torah” has inspired gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple forced to weath­er pover­ty and per­se­cu­tion, while hold­ing on to the hope that a bet­ter day was on the hori­zon.”

The Promise of Lib­er­ty presents the Passover seder’s themes, images, ideas, and ideals as the well­spring of the Amer­i­can found­ing and first 250 years, and a source of wis­dom for envi­sion­ing its brighter future. 

As The New York Times’ David Brooks has writ­ten, the sto­ry can con­tin­ue to serve as an orga­niz­ing nation­al tale, par­tic­u­lar­ly amidst our cur­rent­ly frac­tious times. It wel­comes in each new group and gives it a tem­plate for how it fits into the com­mon move from oppres­sion to dig­ni­ty. The book of Exo­dus is full of social jus­tice — care for the vul­ner­a­ble, the equal­i­ty of all souls. It empha­sizes that the moral and mate­r­i­al jour­neys are inter­twined and that for a nation to suc­ceed mate­ri­al­ly, there has to be an invis­i­ble moral con­sti­tu­tion and a fer­vent effort toward char­ac­ter edu­ca­tion. It sug­gests that his­to­ry is in the shape of an upward spiral.”

The Promise of Lib­er­ty seeks to inspire Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, and all who might find them­selves at a Passover seder, by demon­strat­ing how the ancient Israelites’ songs of thanks­giv­ing sung upon their exo­dus from Egypt have long pro­vid­ed Amer­i­ca with its own moral lyrics of liberty. 

This excerpt orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Jew­ish Jour­nal.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.