This Pesach I’m thinking about the exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we’ll retell around the seder table tonight.
I’m thinking in particular about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall. And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.
Woe betide the empire that fails to heed this message. Powerful empires have come and gone, but the Power that Makes for Liberation still manages to live to fight another day. Will the Pharoahs among us ever learn?
There’s no getting around the fact that our seder story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story. That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Read that one around the seder table tonight. And for good measure, throw in this sentence from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
It is my fervent hope that this Pesach, we American Jews, who rank among the most privileged and powerful citizens on earth, will talk openly and honestly about the wages of our power when we gather yet again to tell the story. What would it mean if we truly took to heart our tradition’s most challenging teachings: that God hears the cries of the enslaved, that God is a God of Liberation, that God stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor and demands that we do as well?
Conversely (and much more painfully), are we, as Americans and as Jews, ready to confront the ways we regularly wield our own power and privilege in any number of oppressive ways at home and abroad? Might we possibly be willing to contemplate this truth: that the power that we chronically take for granted, will eventually, inevitably go the way of history as well?
Indeed, if there is any message we learn at seder table tonight, it’s that, to paraphrase the words of poet Kevin Coval, all Pharoahs must eventually fall:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
Read that one around the seder table too.
I’m so proud to be part of a tradition, a people, a spiritual nation that has survived to outlast far mightier nations because it has affirmed a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora, where this sacred vision was sown, took root and eventually blossomed forth.
May the story we tell tonight inspire us to be bearers of that vision in our lives and in our world.
All the best for a challenging and liberating Pesach.