at sundown Passover or Pesach began when Jews around the world gather 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.
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 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!
Symbols of a Passover Seder meal.
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.
of the Seder meal shared today, however, dates to the early years of the Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, not in the early
years of the First Century BCE when
Jewish religious life still centered on the Temple and the priests attending it. But
some sort of family meal before or after Temple rites was shared.
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 and Conservative congregations in the U.S. invite non-Jews to attend special
Seder meals. I once got to open the door for Elijah.
This year the first night comes two days before Western Christians celebrate Easter
2012 the Passover and Good Friday coincided. It was also a Blue Moon, the second full
moon of the month, symbolic of
how relatively rare that coincidence
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 UU
Congregation, Naturally, I committed
poetry for the occasion. I have edited
the poem and replaced a verse from the original.
Brief Haggadah for Passover
For Social Gospel in Words and Music
makes this night different
You have to
children are always
massacred for some
or for mere convenience sake.
slaves are plotting their escape
and Pharaohs hitch their war chariots
to pursue them.
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?
In 2016 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?
there were no Passover?
What if no sacrificial blood
smeared on the lintel
offered any protection?
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?
there were nowhere to flee?
What if no haven or Promise Land
lay waiting even after wandering
because we have laid waste to it
there were no Milk and Honey?
What if our goats all starved,
we killed the bees
and parched the earth bare?
there were no Seder tables to lay?
What if there were no progeny
to ask what makes this night
no generations ever again?
What if this
is no mere nightmare?
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:
If He had destroyed their idols,
and had not smitten their first-born
— Dayenu, it would have sufficed!
If He had smitten their first-born,
and had not given us their wealth
— Dayenu, it would have sufficed!
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 a just safety for a people nearly exterminated by others?
questions, and undoubtedly ones some would wish un-asked.
Seven 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.
Was there a Blood Moon
that terrible night
long, long ago?
of the Moon
turning the color
of old blood.
The wails of
leapt from house to house,
hovel to tent,
it is said even to
the palaces themselves.
of the men
bearing the limp bodies
of their sons
into the dark air
damning the Moon
What quarrel between bondsmen,
and their Priests
them, not us.
We are the farmers,
shepherds, the weavers,
who cast pots,
of simple brick
mud and dung,
What care we for those palaces,
those damnable tombs,
the slaves who build them!
No Jews dug our wells,
of simple brick
single stone on stone
to save our
Yet they called down on us
kids and lambs
to death by
And now our very sons!
What harm did they do you,
If your damn God
why did you
not call him
wipe out Pharaoh,
Generals in their chariots,
all their minions
had their sandals
Such a God would be
Your freedom—and ours—
would be one!