Commentary
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow 4-04-2019

Passover is approaching. The first night and its ceremonial meal, the Seder, will come the night of April 19. The night before, Holy Thursday, for Christians commemorates the Last Supper, a Passover Seder. And April 19 is the anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution against a tyrannical king. It’s a powerful confluence!

This year it feels especially appropriate and necessary. For today all Americans and most life-forms on Earth are living inside the story of Passover — our health and livelihoods, our freedom and our lives, endangered by modern pharaohs who are oppressing human beings and bringing plagues upon the earth.

Indeed, our Pharaoh-in-Chief is seemingly following the ancient Pharaoh’s roadmap. The ancient story starts with, “There is a dangerous immigrant community who speak a different language, worship a different way from us. They swarm in numbers, and may conspire with our enemies, becoming terrorists. Let us smash their families by killing their children!” When a resistance emerges, Pharaoh’s stubbornness, arrogance, and cruelty bring on ecological disasters – undrinkable water, unprecedented locust swarms, and hailstorms unheard of in all the country’s history.

The resistance, initiated by women — midwives, and even Pharaoh’s daughter — grows. It hears a call to march by baking bread in haste so sharp it cannot rise. Its matzah embodies what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”

The story reaches its climax when the tyranny so violently overreaches that the Pharaoh’s power dissolves in the Sea of Reeds.

What is the “Sea of Reeds” for us? Like the ancient Israelites and their allies, let us turn the Passover Seder from a commemoration of the past into an “insightment” to nonviolent transformation of the future.

In 1969, in the midst of a crisis over racism and war, Jews joined with black and white Christians to create a new kind of Seder. We called it the Freedom Seder. For the first time in 3,000 years of Jewish history, it wove together the liberation struggles of other peoples – especially black America – with the ancient freedom struggle against Pharaoh. We held it on April 4, the first anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King.

This coming April 7, 50 years later, in the midst of an American and a planetary crisis even sharper, The Shalom Center is sponsoring a new Interfaith Freedom Seder + 50. We are doing this not to commemorate the past but to transform the future.

Among its leaders will be Revs. Willam Barber II and Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign; Ana Maria Archila, who famously challenged then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in the U.S. Capitol elevator and who heads the Center for Popular Democracy; and Debbie Almontaser, who founded the first Arabic-lanaguage public school in America, has suffered from anti-Arab hatred, and has transcended it.

These national resistance leaders will be joined by local Philadelphians, grassroots front-line survivors of the plagues that our modern pharaohs are bringing on the world – gun violence, families torn apart, racist pressure on under-funded, stressed-out schools that then can deliver only substandard education, asthma epidemics brought on by the same oil refineries that are burning the world, the murders at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, violence against women and LGBTQ people.

The new Interfaith Freedom Seder + 50 will bring people together in a fusion of joy and justice — eating together, singing together, learning together, taking action together. One delicious taste of old/new music in advance: “Go Down Moses,” an old song —

When they had reached the other shore, Let My people go;
They sang the song of freedom o’er, Let My people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: Let My people go!

with a new last verse:

As we live here in America, Set our people free!
In all our colors we Resist, from Sea to shining Sea!
Rise up, O People, Rise up all across our land —
Tell new Pharaohs, your oppressions will not stand!

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center.

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