A bittersweet irony it is that the freedom festival of Passover arrives just after the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We go to our spring festival this year with a thousand cuts on our soul—from the fleeting hopes of a Middle East peace to a serious national malignancy of division and fear here in the USA. Slavery and its mantras are unbounded, unrepentant, and openly messaged.
American democracy, bred of the Hebrew Scripture, is much better than that.
Dr. King’s spirit has never been more ephemeral, Passover never more flouted, and messianic dreams never more stricken. 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 bondage. As MLK often said, “No one is free until everyone is free.”
The preacher 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. He 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, Tenn. in those days was the moral equivalent of ancient Memphis, Egypt; the born-Jewish 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 Torah 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 servitude and degradation.
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 his words, “I’ve decided to choose love over hate.” His words bothered a lot of people’s intractable racial 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? We celebrants shouldn’t just eat the Passover foods and sing our way through the rituals. We should nourish yourselves with the moral outrage of the Haggadah—stand up and decry it when our politicians (on both sides) pander to hate. Assert that American democracy, bred of the Hebrew Scripture, is much better than that.
From the Seder tables of America to the holy pagodas of China to the olive groves of the Holy Land, let freedom ring!