Passover this year seemed like one incredibly long day: Seder, sleep,
synagogue, nap, synagogue, seder, sleep, synagogue, lunch, nap, synagogue. Finally
I feel bad about saying “finally” because I enjoyed both of the (very
different) seders I attended. Lots of discussion. Mounds of amazing food.
But I was so tired by the end. I really did feel like there was no break.
What I said above is only related to what follows in that I shared parts of this about four times during that extremely long day. And I just felt like telling someone about my “day”.
My great-grandmother was alive until I was in college. She was an
incredibly mean old woman, but she was around. Although I haven’t traced my
genealogy, I am pretty sure that her mother was born before slavery ended in
I never talked to my great-grandmother about much, and I certainly never
talked to her about that, so I don’t know for sure. Slavery wasn’t something anyone
in my family talked about when I was young – ever. And by the time I was old
enough to want to know, everyone I could have asked was already gone.
Think about that. I was born a little over 80 years after the ratification
of the amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery. So that means that
in a little over a hundred years my family completely lost its history –
Because we were ashamed. The children of the victims were ashamed.
It was as if not talking about it made it not be true that our family had been slaves. But because of the “not talking” I have no idea what that time was like for my family. Or what it was like when we were first free.
I’m pretty sure that’s why the book, and the 1977 TV show, Rootswas such a phenomenon. I know I watched every episode. And it wasn’t just because every Black actor in Hollywood at the time was in it, although it seemed they all were. It was because author Alex Haley’s family retained enough of its story that he was able to trace his “roots” through slavery times, all the way back to his ancestor’s capture in Gambia, West Africa.
I couldn’t even imagine being able to do that. I still can’t. I
have no story to trace.
There’s a lot I could go into about why my family didn’t talk about our family’s story: but a lot of it came from the deficiencies of the school systems at the time that my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother, grew up. Deficiencies that continued while I was growing up.
The Supreme Court decision (Brown v the Board of Education) which declared separate (i.e. segregated) schools unequal didn’t happen until I was seven. And there are many school systems in the US today that are still struggling with desegregation or what they are calling re-segregation of their schools. (As an aside, I think re-segregation is one of the saddest words I have ever heard.)
It’s only been recently that I realized what a favor my mother did me, when
she left Texas when I was 3, so that I could attend “better” schools in
California. Given the version of history even those schools taught us,
including the myth of the contented slave, it’s debatable exactly how much
better they were. Even so, yes, they were better.
Jews, on the other hand, never lost their story. We have been repeating the
story of the Exodus for over 3000 years.
Pesach/Passover is, hands down, the most well-known, as well as the most celebrated of the three major Jewish festivals. Even leaving aside the fact that most Jews don’t live in Israel, and the Temple isn’t still standing (making it tough to make the required trip), the other two festivals that require Jews to go to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices are not nearly as well known, or as much observed. I’ve known secular Jews who’ve never even heard of Shavuot/celebrating the giving of the Torah or Sukkot/celebrating G-d’s protection after we left Egypt.
It is also celebrated by many non-Jews, as is evidenced by the number of haggadot targeted at specific non-Jewish political and ideological groups, not to mention the chocolate and Harry Potter variations.
Speaking of the Haggadah. That required reading for the Passover seder, is famous for the Four Questions to the famous (or possibly infamous) Four Sons. But unsurprisingly if you know me, I have others to add:
What is it about the story of the Exodus that makes it so compelling that oppressed
peoples, throughout history, and all over the world, look to it as an
inspiration in their own battles for freedom?
What is it that has kept Jews attached to and repeating this story for all these many
years? Yes, there is a commandment to tell the story in every generation. But,
let’s be honest, there are a lot of other commandments that many Jews have
trouble continuing to fulfill. Granted this one involves a lot of food and wine,
There’s a clue in a song by a great blues singer named Solomon Burke:
If you just look around you, Your gonna see what I say. Cause the world is getting smaller each passing day. Now it’s time to start making changes, And it’s time for us all to realize, That the truth is shining real bright right before our eyes. None of us are free, If one of us is chained, None of us are free.
Besides being a truly great song, the lyrics make a point about our world
today: So many are not free. In many different ways, there are many
people who are “chained” either physically, intellectually or emotionally.
As my little story about my family shows, freedom involves a lot more than
simply having a law passed that removes your shackles. Our shame about our
family history kept us, in some ways, still in shackles even though no one was
forcing us to work on plantations, or selling any of us down the river.
The simple definition of freedom may be the ability to do whatever you want
with no one making you do anything or preventing you from doing anything. But
it is obvious that that definition must leave out something important.
How does the story of the Exodus speak to Jews, as well as a lot of other
people, about freedom?
It supplies part of the definition of freedom. After all, you can’t really
pursue freedom if you don’t know what it is you are looking for.
Rabbi Asher Resnick, on his website: Jewish Clarity says that Passover is called “Chag haMatzot” (the holiday of Matzot). And that matzah, that simple mixture of flour and water baked together, represents two things that are fundamental to freedom: simplicity and purity.
We are commanded to eat matzah to remind us of the importance of returning
to the simplicity and purity within ourselves. Matzah is a symbol of the desire
that we all have to do the right thing.
Passover therefore shows us one essential part of the definition of
freedom: you must have the desire to do what is right.
Is having that desire enough? Unfortunately, no. Most have heard the old
saying: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Wanting to
do right is not enough.
What else do we need to know to understand freedom?
The second piece in the definition is knowing what “right”
R. Resnick says right action for a Jew is following the commandments of the
Torah that we received 50 days after Passover, on that holiday a lot of folks
have never heard of: Shavuot.
There is an obvious direct link between these two holidays that together
define freedom: the Counting of the Omer. The count begins the
second night of Passover and continues 50 days to the night before Shavuot.
The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover,
the commemoration of the Exodus, and Shavuot, the commemoration of the giving
of the Torah. Counting the Omer reminds us that the redemption from slavery
(representing the first part of the definition of freedom: the importance of
having the intention to do the right thing) was not complete until we received
the Torah (which contains the second part of that definition: the right actions.)
When I was sitting here thinking about why Jews have continued to obey the
commandment to repeat the story of the Exodus in every generation, the thought
popped into my mind: “Jews are a stiff-necked people”. Like most
things, that characteristic can be a negative thing, or, as in this case, a
“Indeed, our stiff-neckedness has served us well. Does anyone really
doubt that by all standards of natural history, we ought to have been a relic
of the past, an academic fascination for aspiring PhDs? Instead, thanks to our
stiff-neckedness, [many] writers… have
pointed to the immortality of the Jew as one of the great enigmas and miracles
of human civilization.”
Do Jews continue to keep Passover only because they are stubborn? Of course not. Or at least, not only because of that. Some of us are consciously doing what G-d commanded us to do. But I also think on some deep level, in our hearts or our souls (as new age-y as that sounds) that we have an awareness that we need to be continually reminded of the first part of the definition of freedom. And we know we will lose that if we ever lose this story… which we might if we did ever stop telling this story in every generation.
On the other hand, in the same way that there is less understanding of, and
far less celebration of, the receiving of the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot,
there seems to be far less agreement about what R. Resnick says is the second
piece of that definition: that the Torah expresses, for Jews at least, the
right actions to carry out to complete the journey to freedom. I would suppose,
in some cases, what we disagree about is not so much what the Torah says, as it
is exactly what the words it says mean.
I am in no way enough of a scholar to tackle that subject. So I am simply
going to say: thank goodness for the stubbornness that has kept us from losing
something so important to us.
Obviously some of the above does not have universal application. Which is
probably why, though the “holiday of freedom” is celebrated by many different
groups, very few who are not Jewish commemorate the giving of the Torah.
I think other groups of people are attracted to the Passover story because
they are looking for both the direction they need to travel, and the actions
required, to get to their own freedom. And because they recognize there is
something truly and deeply amazing about the fact that we have continued to
tell our story in every generation.
Unfortunately for my own family, and possibly everyone else trying to use Passover as a model, they only have the first part of the story. They learn… they feel… in that story the commitment to do the right thing.
To some extent, many of them, as well as many Jews, are still searching for
that second part of the definition: right actions.
Was it fate, or random natural phenomena, or G-d “who took us out of Egypt with
a strong hand and with an outstretched arm”?
Again, I’m not the scholar or the sage to argue any of those
positions. And, I confess, I’ve struggled with the concept of “faith” since I
was six years old, so I’m not the one to tell you to just “believe”. Although…
I am much closer to believing in belief, than I was at the beginning of my
I often think about the words of that song: None of us are free, as
long as one of us is chained.
I grew up alone much of the time, cut off from both my family and the community. My parents both worked, so I was a latchkey kid before that term was invented. Like most things in life, growing up that way had an upside and a downside. I lost my family’s story, but I also lost at least some of slavery’s chains.
On the other hand (and there’s always another hand) as I Jew, I now have another story about slavery to learn, to think about, and in whose footsteps to walk for the next 50 days, hopefully to get the rest of the way through what is a real never ending story.