Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Hope and Heartbreak of Passover in Murfin Verse

A late 19th Century engraving illustrating the Angel of death passing by a Jewish home where sheep's blood has been smeared on the door lintle. 

Last night at sundown Passover or Pesach began when Jews around the world gathered around  ritual tables to remember and give thanks for the events that lead to the ultimate freedom of the Hebrew people and a Promise Land of their own.  That came at a terrible price for their oppressors—a pain that they thank God for inflicting.  It is an uplifting night, a hopeful night, but also a terrible one.
The story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt is a saga of freedom that not only gave comfort and hope to Jews through centuries of persecution but inspired others who were enslaved and oppressed.  Blacks held in bondage in America in particular used images from the tale in their coded worship and song in which the Promise Land was freedom itself. In his the speech on the eve of his assassination Martin Luther King evoked Moses when he declared:
I’ve been to the mountaintop…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
The traditions of the Passover feast are outlined in the Hebrew scripture making them among the most ancient of continually observed religious celebrations in the world.  On the first night families gather for a Seder meal, the ingredients of which are prescribed and highly symbolic in re-telling the story.  A service is read from the Haggadah and is in the form of questions asked by the eldest son of the father.  

The Seder is a tradition of the home, not the Temple where lore and tradition are ritually transmi identitytted between generations to preserve a Jewish in a world of peril while holding out hope for a better future
Christians believe that the Last Super was a Seder meal, linking the two observances.  In recent years some Christians have taken to celebrating Seder meals to connect to the Jewish roots of their faith.  This is a development that is embraced as a bridge to cultural understanding by some, and as an abomination by traditional Jews.  Many Reform congregations invite non-Jews to attend special Seder meals.  I once got to open the door for Elijah.
This year the first night of Passover shared the evening with Good Friday, when Christians mark the death of Jesus on the Cross.  It was also a Blue Moon, the second full moon of the month, symbolic of how relatively rare that coincidence is.
Back in 2012 the two holy occasions also coincided.  On that same night I hosted a benefit evening of song and poetry with bluesman Andy Cohen at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry (now Tree of Life—A UU Congregation in McHenry County),  Naturally, I committed poetry for the occasion.   I have edited the poem and replaced a verse from the original.

Acording to the Gospel of John, Jesus was the Lamb of God, litterally like the sheep whose blood marked the Jewish doorways, a sacrifice to save the people. 
Brief Haggadah for Passover/Good Friday
For Social Gospel in Words and Music
April 6, 2012

The child always asks…
            What makes this night different
            from all other nights?

You have to think hard.

Somewhere children are always
being massacred for some
accident of birth
            or for mere convenience sake.

Somewhere slaves are plotting their escape
            and Pharaohs hitch their war chariots
            to pursue them. 

Somewhere the fearful faithful
            kneel at the feet of a dying master,
            a maybe Messiah
            who frightened an Empire.

What makes this night different?
            Nothing, son, except that
            you asked the right question.
            Now, what are we going
            to do about it?

—Patrick Murfin
Two years ago the first night of Passover fell on Earth Day. At a time when the realities and projections for global ecological catastrophe have never been greater moved me to wonder—What if?
The Plague of Locusts was just one of the punishing catastrophes visited on the Egyptians in Exodus.  The disasters we face are even more chilling.
Passover/Earth Day
April 23, 2016

What if there were no Passover?
            What if no sacrificial blood
            smeared on the lintel
            offered any protection?

What if there were no Us and Them?
            What if the Pharaoh’s son
            and our sons fell alike
            from the same dark curse?

What if the Dark Angels were not Yahweh’s?
            What if they were our creation,
            evoked by our carelessness
            and fed by our greed?

What if there were nowhere to flee?
            What if no haven or Promise Land
            lay waiting even after wandering
            because we have laid waste to it too?

What if there were no Milk and Honey?
            What if our goats all starved,
            we killed the bees
            and parched the earth bare?

What if there were no Seder tables to lay?
            What if there were no progeny
            to ask what makes this night different,
            no generations ever again?

What if this is no mere nightmare?

—Patrick Murfin
But Passover has always had a dark side, almost forgotten, glossed over, or muttered under the breath—the fate of all of those Egyptian children.  It is easy to do, especially if you envision only the sons of Pharaoh and his court—a just punishment for a king who had ordered the slaughter of Jewish babes when he got wind of a rumor that a liberator would be born among them.  But death was visited not just on the elite, but upon all Egypt and families of every class and caste.  And that sounds, to modern ears, a bit harsh.
At Seder meals Jews acknowledge this in singing Dayenu:
Verse 3:
            If He had destroyed their idols,         
            and had not smitten their first-born  
            — Dayenu, it would have sufficed!              
Verse 4:
            If He had smitten their first-born,                 
and had not given us their wealth                 
— Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

A modern reflection on the Plague of Darkness by Russian born and trained  Isreali artist Elisheva Ness.
All of this got me wondering…do the lives of one set of innocents have to be the price for the freedom and safety of another people?  Are the babes and children of Dresden, Hiroshima, or some dusty village on the Afghan frontier God’s just collateral damage for our noble freedom?  Do Palestinian dead buy just safety for a people nearly exterminated by others?
Uncomfortable questions, and undoubtedly ones some would wish un-asked.
Four years ago Passover coincided  not with a Blue Moon, but with a Blood Moon, a rare total eclipse under just the right atmospheric conditions that make the Moon darkened by the Earth’s umbra seem to turn red.

Lamentions Over the Death of the First Born of Egyp by Charles Sprague Pearce.

Blood Moon/Egyptian Passover
April 15/2014

Was there a Blood Moon
that terrible night
long, long ago?

Khonsu, Disk of the Moon
            was eaten,
            turning the color
            of old blood.
The wails of the women
            leapt from house to house,
            hovel to tent,
            it is said even to
            the palaces themselves.
The curses of the men
            bearing the limp bodies
            of their sons
            into the dark air
            damning the Moon
                        the Jews,
                                    Pharaoh himself.

What quarrel between bondsmen,
            the mighty and their Priests
            belongs to them, not us.
We are the farmers,
            fishers of the River    
                        and the seas,
            the shepherds, the weavers,
            the folk who cast pots,
            the brewers of beer,
            the molders of simple brick
                        from mud and dung,
            the house slaves
                        and wet nurses,
            the prostitutes…
What care we for those palaces,
            those temples,
                        those monuments,
those damnable tombs,
                        or the slaves who build them!

No Jews dug our wells,
            laid course of simple brick
            for our homes,
            piled a single stone on stone
            on our graves
            to save our dead
            from the jackals.

Yet they called down on us
            the frogs,
            spoiled our grain
            with locust,
            stoned our kids and lambs
            to death by hail,
            our flesh that erupted
            in festering boils.

And now our very sons!

What harm did they do you,
            you Jews?

If your damn God
            is so powerful
            why did you not call him
            to just wipe out Pharaoh,
                        the Priests,
                                    the Generals in their chariots,
                                                and all their minions
            who have had their sandals
            on our necks
            since time began?

Such a God would be
worth worshiping!
Your freedom—and ours—
would be one!

—Patrick Murfin

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