Delivered by Rabbinic Intern Jay Stanton at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 4, 2018.
I have been thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today marks 50 years since his assassination, and I have been thinking about how blessed we are by Dr. King. Although his dream of racial equity is not yet realized, King’s vision of a just world and of a beloved community benefits us all. Still on the march to freedom, we shall not be moved. In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
So tonight bothers me. Why are we here? What are we doing here? We could be spending our time in so many immediately effective ways. We could be on the picket line with striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. We could be outside the Israeli Embassy protesting the shooting of unarmed Gazan civilians. We could be praying with our feet. Instead, we’re here, engaged in a ritual that involves praying with our taste buds. Why not abandon the traditional Passover rituals and observe the holiday by working for justice? In familiar words, why is this night different from all other nights?
I found the beginnings of an answer in the speech Dr. King gave the day before he died. Often referred to as the “Mountaintop” or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the remarks he offered on April 3, 1968, on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis are striking (pun intended). The most revisited part chronicles Dr. King’s prophetic sense of his imminent demise. But in the beginning, King imagines the extraordinary opportunity of standing with God.
In Dr. King’s imagination, God offers to take him to any point in time. Martin Luther King says:
I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.
Though King’s choice is obvious, his purpose is not. Stopping in liberatory moments where freedom of thought and freedom of action expanded, he brings his listeners on his imagined journey through time. Finally, he arrives at the liberatory moment of the Poor People’s Campaign.
After acknowledging the injustices of his world, King continues:
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
Dr. King echoes a core aspect of the Passover seder. We say bejol dor vador jayyav adam lir’ot et ‘atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went free from Egypt. This fulfills the verse “You shall tell your child on that day that God freed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”
We often take this as an echo of Torah’s most repeated rule. Having been strangers in Egypt, we must be kind to the stranger. But we don’t need a seder to have empathy for the stranger. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have shown that the best way to cultivate empathy is habitual activation of a structure in the brain called the right supermarginal gyrus. We can activate our brain’s empathy structure by focusing on others. Increasing empathy cannot be the effect of telling our story.
Our seder tells us something different, tells us something Dr. King tells us in his Mountaintop speech. For King, humanity is always striving to become free, and God is always liberating the oppressed; today’s freedom marches are the same in sacred time as the Exodus from Egypt. When we see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt, we live in that sacred moment.
Our seder allows us to live through the Exodus mythologically. Then, not only can we have empathy for the oppressed, we can share the joy of redemption and participate in liberation. For those of us currently experiencing oppression, the seder’s ritual journey allows us to memorize a feeling of having been liberated, which we will recognize when we get there.
In his Mountaintop speech, Dr. King details the ways demonstrators remained unfazed by Bull Connor’s violent tactics, stressing that liberation starts in the mind. Tonight, those of us facing oppression remember that Jews observed Passover even while oppressed – in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe and by the double standard of dhimmi status in the Middle East and North Africa. Black Jewish slaves in the American South also observed Passover, even while owned by Jews. (Yes, there were Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners in America – feel free to ask me about it later. Can you imagine slaves serving at a Jewish master’s seder and then holding their own seder during the night?) Tonight, the oppressed among us, and those too oppressed to be here with us, assert that our liberation is God’s objective. Ain’t nobody can turn us ‘round.
For those of us currently experiencing freedom, the seder’s journey cultivates gratitude for our liberation and solidarity with the oppressed. Focusing on the Exodus story allowed Dr. King to emphasize solidarity with the striking workers in Memphis. Desegregation was an important step toward collective freedom for Black Americans, but desegregation did not solve the economic injustices of Black generational poverty and wage discrimination. As King points out in his journey through the history of liberation, our specific liberations, whatever they may be, are only pieces of a greater process of redemption. If we are free while others remain oppressed, we are still living in the bondage of a narrow place.
For most of us in this room, the reality is that we experience both oppression and freedom in different moments and in different ways. Some of us may experience sexual harassment at work but enjoy equal partnership at home. Some of us may be targeted by police because of the color of our skin but know simultaneously that Black is beautiful. Some of us may encounter hate from our family members concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but enjoy the support of our queer beloved community. Some of us may encounter antisemitism from our Congressional candidates or in the newspaper, but benefit from white privilege.
We may be targets of oppression based on class, ability, immigration status, and religious affiliation, to name a few, but none of us are enslaved. We share the freedom of movement that allows us to be in this room tonight. We share the freedoms of religion and free association that allow us to have a seder here tonight. The seder, like our lives, reflects both our oppression and our liberation.
Right now, I invite you to step into this night of transformation. The root of the word “nishtanah” in mah nishtanah is change. What will change on this night, as opposed to other nights? I invite you to open your heart to be transformed by tonight. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you experience sacred time. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you know that you have been liberated. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have gratitude for the freedom you enjoy. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have a sense of history. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you stand on the shoulders of your elders. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you do so in a beloved community. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you are in solidarity with all the oppressed. So that tomorrow, when you take action for justice, you will not be moved.
Once we were slaves. Now we have been freed. How does that change you?