Thursday, March 28, 2013

Go Down Moses . . .

This article I authored was published in the Jewish Voice and Herald on Friday, March 15, 2013.  I thought it worth reproducing here. 
Last year, President Barack Obama concluded his Passover Seder with an interesting addition.  After the singing of Had Gadya (traditionally the final song in the Seder service),  participants in the White House Seder took turns reciting sections of the Emancipation Proclamation, thus creating a bridge between the core message of Passover, a distant and remote cultic festival of an ancient people, the Israelites, and the powerful modern outgrowth of the same concept of racial equality. President Obama’s serving as the Seder leader further reinforced this message.
While many staffers joked that gefilte fish wasn’t usually on many White House menus, the conclusion of the White House Seder affords us the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of Passover.
As United States citizens, western Jews tend to speak of Passover in western terms.  Clearly, the holiday is about the benefits of freedom and the evils of slavery.  It also celebrates the triumph of the oppressed, and refutes the notion that “might makes right.” Egypt was the most powerful nation in the ancient world, while the Israelites were just a petty tribal family, oppressed and enslaved because of their minority status, unique identity and strange customs.
All of these notions speak to the heart of core liberal democratic values, so it is easy to simply assume that this is what Passover is about. However, that offers only a partial – and misleading – picture of the meaning of the holiday, and it behooves us to consider the holiday’s full meaning and its implications for our lives.
God’s language when he first commands Moses is instructive:
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my first born-son.’  I have said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go.  Now I will slay your first-born son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23)

In this statement, all of the emphasis is, surprisingly, on worshipping God, with no reference to the immorality of forced physical labor or the unconscionable notion that humans can own other humans as physical property.
Further, throughout the story, as the Egyptians are being afflicted with plagues, Moses’ request to Pharaoh is simply to allow the Israelites a holiday to worship their God: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me.’’” (Exodus 9:1)
In the well-known Civil War-era slave spiritual, though, Moses is alleged to have said merely, “Let my people go”; the song omits the conclusion of his request: “to worship [God].”
According to the biblical text, Moses’ complaints are not centered on the immorality of slavery but rather on the affirmative notion that God must be worshipped; slavery merely obstructs the path.
Generally speaking, the civic culture of the United States is one of personal autonomy rather than responsibility to others.  The U.S. Constitution carefully and deliberately grants each of us specific rights to which we are entitled.  It does not demand that we vote, serve in the military or do much service to our fellow citizens, other than leaving them alone.
The Passover story compels us to build on our beloved freedoms by asking ourselves the simple question, “to what end?”
Freedom from the constraints of physical and emotional oppression is a necessary first step; this point is easy to emphasize and relate to, especially in our society.  That freedom fundamentally requires us to worship God through the pursuit of a moral and ethical life is too often overlooked and too easy to forget in our society.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 29:20)
The goal of freedom is the exercise of responsibility.
Time, which has a way of turning things on their heads, allows for the creation of circumstances previously unimaginable.  During the Seder, symbols such as the maror (bitter herbs), haroset and the broken middle matzah compel us to imagine the life of a slave devoid of hope, and require us to confront those elements in our lives to which we are still enslaved.
At the same time, the four cups of wine, festive meal, presence of family and friends and yes, the matzah again, confirm our current freedoms and markedly changed circumstances.  In ancient times we were at the bottom, but today we are on top.
Perhaps the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Passover Seder represents more than a superficial connection to modern notions of freedom.  Once, we were slaves, freed by the proclamation of God through his prophet Moses.  Today, we are empowered, free to liberate others and issue proclamations of our own.

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