A bittersweet irony it is that the freedom festival of Passover arrives just prior to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the rebirth of hope for our Christian neighbors—Easter Sunday.
As MLK said, “No one is free until everyone is free.”
We all come to our April festivals this year with a thousand cuts on our soul—from the concerning volatility in Washington to the pervasive racism and sexism of American culture: thousands and thousands of humans, mostly innocent children, are being bombed or chemically gassed in Syria. China smiles at us with a mocking grin. North Korea, home of the post-modern Asian Pharaoh, lingers ominously in the dark shadows of our minds. Slavery and its mantras are unbounded, unrepentant, and openly messaged.
On theological paper, everybody is working the same banalities—an unceasing heap of platitudes (“Our thoughts and prayers go out to…”). Dr. King’s spirit has never been more fleeting, Passover more flouted and messianic dreams more numb.
We have a long march ahead before we really get to the Promised Land of liberty and human dignity—and thus defeat the sickness of slavery. As MLK often said, “No one is free until everyone is free.”
King was felled by a single bullet as he stood on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. at 6:01 PM on April 4, 1968–fifty years ago. The preacher was in Memphis to try and help some garbage workers get a ten-cent per hour raise, some clean work wear, and a union. The black men who comprised the city sanitation force were not even permitted to enter the white-only work lounges during rainstorms.
This was slavery. Memphis, Tennessee in those days was the moral equivalent of ancient Memphis, Egypt; the mayor of the city was nothing less than an urban Pharaoh. What happened in the Book of Exodus was the advent of the world’s first civil rights movement.
The old Scripture tells us that God “heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt” and took a very powerful interest in the situation. The legendary plagues and parting of the Red Sea are the literary beacons of God’s indignation with the reality of human bondage.
All Pharaonic situations, from Ramses to Little Rock, Arkansas, amount to slavery. Passover is the ethical springtime of the human spirit and Martin Luther King died at this season because, in spite of his words, “I’ve decided to choose love over hate.” His words bothered a lot of people’s ominous sensibilities.
And they still do. ISIS is committing unspeakable crimes of bondage and horror that would turn Pharaoh’s courtiers red-faced. Russian government mobsters are basking in homicidal Soviet nostalgia. Africa, the mother of this earth, remains a savage continent that devours its own inhabitants.
So what do we do? Jews: don’t just eat the Passover foods. Nourish yourselves with the moral outrage of the Haggadah—stand up and decry it when an Israeli prime minister romps around the world while dodging indictment in Israel. Assert that the Israeli narrative, bred of scripture, is much better than that.
From the Seder tables of America to the spiritual pagodas of Myanmar to the caring sanctuaries of Europe to the underground railroads of so many freedom campaigns to the olive groves of the Holy Land, let freedom ring!
[Image: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his ally, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., both of blessed memory–Vancouver Sun]