The laws tame the ego and create habits of deference by reminding you of your subordination to something permanent. The laws spiritualize matter, so that something very normal, like having a meal, has a sacred component to it. The laws build community by anchoring belief in common practices. The laws moderate religious zeal; faith is not expressed in fiery acts but in everyday habits. The laws moderate the pleasures; they create guardrails that are meant to restrain people from going off to emotional or sensual extremes.
The 20th-century philosopher Eliyahu Dessler wrote, “the ultimate aim of all our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion.” Exodus provides a vision of movement that is different from mere escape and liberation. The Israelites are simultaneously moving away and being bound upward. Exodus provides a vision of a life marked by travel and change but simultaneously by sweet compulsions, whether it’s the compulsions of love, friendship, family, citizenship, faith, a profession or a people.
This is particularly interesting to me right now because, as you know, the pilgrimage Dante takes from Hell, through Purgatory, into Paradiso, tracks the Israelite exodus. Hell is slavery in Egypt; Purgatory is the wandering in the desert; Paradise is the Promised Land. Dante presents it as a journey from bondage to liberty, which sounds like the total opposite of what Dessler says. But I think this may be mostly a matter of terminology. In Dante, freedom is liberation from compulsion to do what we know is wrong, and replacing them with the desire to do what is right. I think the problem here is with the word “compulsion,” which ordinarily implies an irresistible feeling spurring one to action that one might not choose. Dante would say that our freedom consists of a voluntarily given perfect obedience to the will of God — which, to one determined to worship one’s Self, not God, seems like slavery.
But you gotta serve somebody. Either you will be a slave to God, a slave to yourself, or a slave to someone, or something, else. I don’t think there’s actually that much difference between Dante and Dessler. The Israelites are, as Brooks says, moving away from slavery to Pharaoh, but they are moving toward slavery, of a sort, to God. But it is a servitude that liberates, and in any case a servitude they are always free to refuse — but they must suffer consequences if so. And as the Hebrew Bible teaches us, they do.
UPDATE: A couple of readers seem to think that by my not mentioning St. Paul’s teaching on the Law, I am dismissing it or ignoring it. Not true. I simply didn’t think it necessary to bring up here, assuming that most people know that St. Paul taught that Christ liberates us from the Law. Jesus, who tells us He came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it, prescribes anarchy, did not prescribe anarchy, not at all. This is a complicated topic, about what the Law means in a messianic age. It’s why I didn’t bring it up in a short post before I had to drive Matt into the city for his class.