04/03/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

From Slavery Unto Freedom: A 3,300-Year-Old Lesson for the 21st Century

Even those with a passing knowledge of biblical history can tell you that the upcoming holiday of Passover is about the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. However, what is far less known is that the Jews adjustment to being a free people wasn't so easy. Indeed, it was excruciatingly difficult and took a significant amount of time. While physically free from Pharaoh, they were still hobbled by the mindset of slavery, an almost more insidious form of enslavement. Until they actually lived through this new journey toward freedom, faced and overcame the inevitable obstacles within and without, they remained imprisoned in their old way of enslaved powerlessness. Their slow, but sure progress enabled a reliable faith and courage to emerge; a lesson that is relevant even today.

When Moses sought to free his brethren, they had been slaves for several generations. Unlike Moses who had been raised in the palace of Pharaoh and experienced thereby the strength, confidence and assertiveness that one is exposed to in a house of power, the Jews residing in Egypt had only known a life of absolute domination and dependence. As 21st century citizens of the United States of America, it seems inconceivable that many of the Jews were reluctant to leave Egypt but the fact is that that was actually the case. It was difficult for them to see themselves as independent individuals in charge of their own lives. They had never experienced nor seen models of this. Thus, it wasn't something that they felt comfortable with. As happy as they were to be free of the backbreaking labor under Pharaoh being a slave was all that they knew. Indeed, when the Jews encountered obstacles and frustration in the desert, they expressed to Moses their desire to return to the "flesh pots" of Egypt where they were slaves rather than remain in the desert as free men and women.

The Jews' difficulty in adjusting to being a free people resonates today. There are many groups of people who live under autocratic, dominating rulers, who are unable to release themselves from these bonds, because they have not experienced what it means to take responsibility for their lives and assert their wills to make this happen. They have not seen models within their own societies of people who have achieved liberation. Thus, their self perception is slave-like; they can not imagine being free, and the fear of facing hardships and overcoming them on their own without the aid of their domineering leaders prevents them from casting off the bonds of servitude. Even when they begin their efforts at liberation, when they meet limitations, frustrations and hardships, their tendency is to romanticize their previous harsh existence as preferable to the unknown reality that now faces them. They have no experience in creatively coping and overcoming, so the resiliency that is required in achieving freedom is quite burdensome. They wind up resigning themselves to oppression, and identifying with their oppressors to gain strength, rather than relying on their own strengths. They may have developed a great sense of compassion for others who suffer, because of their own experience with suffering, but they have not developed the requisite skills of assertiveness, autonomy and fortitude to push on in the face of hardships that people who have been raised in freedom and opportunity have developed.

When we look at the Arab Spring, we see a new generation who has witnessed the models and images of free societies via the global interconnectedness available through modern technology and, as a result, are now beginning to assert their hopes and dreams with vigor. This new generation, exposed to power and possibility, is rising to liberate itself from the shackles of oppression and exploitation, from autocratic leadership who have dominated their people for generations. As we have seen so far, this process will not be an easy one nor will change happen overnight. Being exposed, via the Internet, to the workings of democracies abroad is far different than having the experience necessary to establish the framework for implementing it at home. In addition, particularly when it comes to the Middle East, age old hatreds and cultural norms may serve as impediments even to this more forward-thinking, new generation. However, despite the potential obstacles, it's not unrealistic to believe that these modern liberation movements have a chance to succeed. In order to find freedom in the Promised Land, the Hebrews who left Egypt had to live through 40 years in the desert before a new generation was born who were not raised in slavery and, as such, had the mentality to deal with the difficult challenges that come with every journey toward liberation.

The obstacles facing those involved in today's liberation movements in countries run by dictators and despots are great but this new generation does not consider those obstacles insurmountable. And that should offer all of us hope. For it is in everyone's best interest if this new generation's perception of the possibilities of utilizing autonomy, self-actualization and power in order to succeed, allows them to leave the "bondage of Egypt" and reach the Promised Land of liberation.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD is the President of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA) and Vice-President of Claremont Lincoln University.