Friday, April 15, 2022

Patrick Passover Poems Revisited—National Poetry Month 2022

Lambs blood on the lintel--a sign to God's avenging angels to pass over the homes of Jews as the first born sons of Egypt are slain.

Tonight 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.

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 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. 

The form 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.

The Last Supper depicted as a Seder meal in Christian iconography.

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

Back in 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 is.

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 UU Congregation,  Naturally, I committed poetry for the occasion.   I have edited the poem and replaced a verse from the original.

A modern family Passover Seder by Adelle John.

Brief Haggadah for Passover

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

The Ten Plagues of Egypt--ecological disasters.

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?

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!

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?

Uncomfortable 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.

Lamentations for the Death of the First Born 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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