First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"Let My People Go"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore April 8, 2001
from: The Jewish Way, (Chapter 2), Irving Greenberg
The overwhelming majority of earth's human beings have always lived in poverty and under oppression, their lives punctuated by sickness and suffering. Few escape damaging illness; even fewer dodge the ravages of old age (except by untimely death); and no one, to date, has avoided death. Most of the nameless and faceless billions know the world as indifferent or hostile. Statistically speaking, human life is of little value. The downtrodden and the poor accept their fate as destined; the powerful and the successful accept good fortune as their due. Power, rather than justice, seems always to rule.
Jewish religion affirms otherwise: Judaism insists that history and the social-economic-political reality in which people live will eventually be perfected; much of what passes for the norm of human existence is really a deviation from the ultimate reality.
How do we know this? From an actual event in history--the Exodus. Mark the paradox: The very idea that much of history--present reality itself--is a deviation from the ideal and that redemption will overcome this divergence comes from a historic experience. That experience was the liberation of the Hebrew slaves, the Exodus from Egypt.
Pesach Has Come To The Ghetto Again
(Warsaw, April 19, 1943)--Binem Heller
Pesach has come to the Ghetto again.
The wine has no grape, the matzah no grain.
But the people anew sing the wonders of old,
The flight from the Pharaohs, so often retold.
How ancient the story, how old the refrain.
The windows are shuttered. The doors are concealed.
The Seder goes on. And fiction and fact Are confused into one.
Which is myth? Which is real?
"Come all who are hungry!" invites the Haggadah.
The helpless, the aged, lie starving in fear.
"Come all who are hungry!" and children sleep, famished.
"Come all who are hungry!" and tables are bare.
Pesach has come to the Ghetto again,
And shuffling shadows shift stealthily through,
Like convert-marranos in rack-ridden Spain
Seeking retreat with the God of the Jews.
But these are the shards, the shattered remains
Of the "sixty ten-thousands" whom Moses led out
Of their bondage...driven to ghettos again...
Where dying’s permitted but protest is not.
From Holland, from Poland, from all Europe’s soil,
Becrippled and beaten the remnant has come.
And there they sit weeping, plundered, despoiled,
And each fifty families has dwindled to one.
Pesach has come to the Ghetto again.
The lore-laden words of the Seder are said,
And the cup of the Prophet Elijah awaits,
But the Angel of Death has intruded, instead.
As always--the German snarls his commands.
As always--the words sharpened-up and precise.
As always--the fate of more Jews in his hands:
Who shall live, who shall die, this Passover night.
But no more will the Jews to the slaughter be led.
The truculent jibes of the Nazis are past.
And the lintels and doorposts tonight will be red
With the blood of the free Jews who will fight to the last.
Pesach has come to the Ghetto again.
And neighbor to neighbor the battle-pledge gives:
The blood of the German will flow in the Ghetto
So long as one Jew in the Ghetto still lives!
In face of the Nazi--no fear, no subjection!
In face of the Nazi--no weeping, no wincing!
Only the hatred, the wild satisfaction
Of standing against him and madly resisting.
Listen! How Death walks abroad in the fury!
Listen! How bullets lament in their flight!
See how our History writes END to the story,
With death heroic, this Passover night.
The Lord said to Moses,
"See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them."
Just how should Unitarian Universalists celebrate the coming of spring?
I ask this question because many of us are ambivalent about celebrating Easter. We don't believe the dead can come back to life. Once the brain is deprived of oxygen for as little as three to five minutes, permanent irreversible damage results. After several days, forget it! Maybe Jesus was still alive when they brought him down from the cross but that blows the resurrection theory. There are pagan elements absorbed into the Easter celebration having to do with eggs and bunnies and flowers that are appealing to us but the resurrection is remote from what we find valuable and inspirational in the Jesus story. We pay attention to his example and his prophetic message first and foremost.
Imbedded in the Easter story is another one that I think is more central to Unitarian Universalism as we understand and practice it today. Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, one of the most important holidays of the Jewish calendar. Passover's origins date back thousands of years, before any recorded history of the Hebrews. The elements of the Passover tradition assembled over the last three thousand years tell a powerful story of the journey from slavery to freedom, as meaningful today as it was when the Jews escaped the oppression of Pharaoh in Egypt. It is both a specific and a universal story that must be told again and again until we all win the freedom we were born to claim.
I speak this morning suggesting Passover is more central to Unitarian Universalism than Easter with some trepidation. Passover is central to Judaism as Easter is central to Christianity. Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in Christianity but the synthesis of the two called Unitarian Universalism cannot be called Christian by the definitions almost all Christian groups use to define themselves. We cannot call ourselves Jewish either. We are in the process of creating a new way to do religion that is value based rather than belief based built on the universal religious truths taught by the great religious traditions of the world.
Not everyone likes this eclectic approach. For example, some Jews are offended by non-Jews having Passover Seders. I attended an evangelical Christian Seder with a co-worker who was trying to convert me that turned the ritual meal into a proclamation of the kingship of Jesus. The popularity of Native American rituals and their use by New Age Spirituality groups has brought condemnation by some tribal leaders.
Yet every ancient ritual is a synthesis of various traditions. If a ritual is done respectfully honoring the core message and meaning of the ritual without pretending to be the original, a powerful new synthesis can emerge. Ritual is participatory performance art. Is there only one way to perform a play of Shakespeare or a Mozart quartet? No! There is a message in the words and music that comes though even if the setting, costumes, instruments, performers and the arrangements vary from the original performance. This is true with Passover as well. We will be celebrating a new Unitarian Universalist interpretation of the Passover ritual in our congregation this Friday. I'm deeply grateful for the help of Saul Rigberg and Robin Miller in preparing a new Haggadah that holds closely to the spirit of the ancient traditions.
This reinterpretation of the Passover ritual is a time-honored tradition older than the story of Exodus, its beginnings lost in ancient history. Over the years, elements have been borrowed from the different cultures the Jewish people coexisted with. For example, from the Greek and Roman Symposiums came the drinking of four cups of wine, two before and two after the meal. From the Roman free citizens' custom of reclining during a feast, the addition of the use of pillows. Contemporary foods are now substituted for roasted lamb.
Historians believe Passover is the synthesis of two festivals, one of shepherds and one of farmers. Spring meant something different to each group. Lambs are born in the spring and herding people often sacrificed one in appreciation to the Gods and/or Goddesses of fertility. The farmers had different rituals and cycles. The festival of unleavened bread connected the farmers to the days before agriculture, perhaps when gathering grain required mobility or technology that didn't allow bread to rise or be baked in an oven.
Some scholars have suggested the two festivals of unleavened bread and sacrificing the first lamb of the flock may have been practiced side by side as the Hebrew shepherds mixed with the Canaanite farmers who occupied the same area of Palestine. The conquest of Palestine by the Babylonians and the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews probably fused the two traditions and focused them on the theme of slavery and freedom, inherent in the Exodus story. This story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in the land of Egypt today has become the central message of the Passover festival and the message in which Unitarian Universalists will find great meaning and value.
It is hard for us to know the historicity of the Exodus story after all these years. The Egyptians don't have a record of their version of events. There is no independent historical evidence to support it. Yet the story has great meaning and value. The story captures the essence of the experience of slavery and the path to freedom, a universal story common to all humanity. The preservation of the truth of this story is a central foundation of Judaism which forever puts the Jewish people at odds with Pharaohs, Kings, Queens, Dictators, Rulers, and unjust and oppressive governments. Resisting oppression was also central to Rabbi Jesus' ministry as he confronted the money changers and overturned their tables in the temple. From both our Jewish and Christian institutional heritage, we can claim the Exodus story as our own.
The Exodus story is also our story as European North Americans as well. The Pilgrims came to this country, crossing the Atlantic rather than the Red Sea, to live in freedom. Many of the immigrants to America come to escape oppression and gain their freedom. The early Congregationalists who later became Unitarians believed they were creating a New Jerusalem in Boston, a beacon to the world of how a free people can build a society. That spirit of creating a great society still beats in many Unitarian Universalist hearts and inspires my efforts to support ARISE, a Religious Initiative Supporting Empowerment in the Capital District.
As ancient as the story is, in some ways it could have been written yesterday. The tribes of Israel were co-existing with the Egyptians as a recognized minority, probably one of many attracted by the prosperity of the Nile valley. Exodus begins with the perception of the king that the Jewish population is growing so fast that the power balance was beginning to shift in their favor. The king decided it was time to practice some birth control by killing male babies. Moses, a child marked for death, survived in a little basket discovered by the king's daughter. Paradoxically, that which he sought to destroy became part of his family.
We don't know what their slavery was like before the Jewish population explosion but I'll guess it followed patterns of slavery in other countries. Some were horribly oppressed as we might expect, but others, house slaves if you will, enjoyed some degree of prosperity. These slaves were not free but they were comfortable. It was not until the king began to see the Jews as a threat and wanted to limit their population that they fully realized the price they had to pay for giving up their freedom. They began to wake up to their shared oppression and desire freedom.
Young Moses, raised in royalty by the king's daughter, chose to abandon his people to save himself after killing an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. Moses could see the evils of slavery but had no sense of what to do about it. So he ran away. How many of us run away, literally or figuratively, when we experience oppression?
It is only after Moses married and had a child in the wilderness that he saw the bush that burns without being consumed. His experience of family, of caring for others beside himself, I expect opened him to caring more deeply about his people and prepared the way for his receptivity to respond to the suffering of his people. I know my concern about society has been magnified by becoming a parent and I expect this is true for many of us.
Most religious people make a big deal out of God's compassion for the suffering of the Jews under the heavy hand of the Egyptian taskmasters. I don't know if there is anything unique about what may or may not have happened 3000 or so years ago in Egypt. As my reading portrays, slavery has been around for a very long time. The exploitation of slaves' physical energy was a traditional source of power until the harnessing of fossil fuels and steam. But oppression didn't end with the steam engine. Today, in a different manifestation, many people still experience oppression around the world. Women in Afghanistan are not much better than slaves. Consumer products are manufactured by sweatshop labor who are virtual slaves. Even those of us who must work for a living to survive are also wage slaves whether we like it or not. While slavery has been outlawed in much of the world, the evil system of oppression remains very strong.
I don't believe God chose that singular moment to enter history protesting Jewish slavery and pointing humanity in a new direction. I believe that same voice speaking out of the burning bush speaks today in the hearts of the sensitive souls with a passion for human rights and social justice. God didn't just speak once to rescue the Jews. That same energy stirs in the hearts and minds of activists around the world as they face injustice.
One aspect of the Exodus story I puzzle over every time I read it is wondering why God is supposed to have hardened the heart of the Pharaoh against letting the Jews leave. Because God hardens the Pharoah's heart, at least the Biblical writers believe the God of the Jews has power over Pharaoh. So why doesn't God just appear to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Jews go? It would have been simpler don't you think? Saved all those plagues of locusts, cattle disease, boils, frogs, locusts and whatnot. Not only does God do this once, but ten times with disastrous results for the Egyptian people culminating in the slaughter of their first born. How do we grasp the meaning of this part of the story?
The Pharaoh is a study in the nature of the oppressor. Few, if any, oppressors voluntarily give up their power over others. Pharaoh dismisses Moses displays of power turning his staff into a serpent by summoning his own magicians who can do the same thing. Kind of reminds me of General Electric dismissing the PCB shoreline study that came out this week with their own hand waving by their experts. Moses mounting displays of power are each countered until they become so overwhelming that they cannot be denied.
This is how power really works. Oppression does not end because the oppressors see the error in their ways and decide to become nice guys. If Moses had asked for a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter for his people, Pharaoh might have been glad to do it because it didn't change his power relationship. He was still in charge and would remain in charge. The only thing that eventually stopped Pharaoh was the destruction of his army in the Red Sea.
The psychiatrist Dr. Erich Fromm, known for his analysis of the psychology of modern totalitarianism, provides a masterful analysis of this story and a prophetic warning as well. For him, this story portrays "one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden man's heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man's heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more is he determined already by a previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man's heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical or spiritual destruction."(1)
Sadly, the story of the Exodus does not end with the crossing of the Red Sea. It begins a new story of struggle against oppression. At the first difficulty searching for water and food, the Jews longed to return to the fleshpots in Egypt and lamented the difficulties that go along with freedom. They were no longer physically oppressed but still had the internalized oppression of a slave mentality.
You see, removing the physical conditions of oppression is only half the battle. The slaves now needed to learn to think independently, make decisions, follow inner initiative and act constructively.
Here are found the lessons for Unitarian Universalists. Few, if any, of us have experienced physical slavery or oppression like what the Jews experienced in Egypt. Yet many of us have internalized messages of oppression, self-doubt, and lack of self-confidence and self-esteem that undermine our ability to act freely. The Jews transferred their loyalty from one master, the Pharaoh, to another one, Moses. Moses understood the need for the people to serve a new kind of master. He went up the mountain and came down with the Ten Commandments, a new master that transcended any human master.
We too, must throw off the oppression we have internalized from many human sources and transfer our loyalty to principles, purposes and ideals as masters that open the way to freedom. Not only must we do this for ourselves but for others.
While any person continues to suffer oppression in this world, the struggle for freedom is not done. The Passover Seder ritual teaches young and old, each at the level of their understanding, the story of the struggle for freedom. Freedom is no easier or harder to win today as it was then. Unfortunately we can forget and believe the oppressor and accept the oppression. This is the value of returning to the Exodus story again each year. Passover serves as a reminder to each new generation that freedom is won and preserved only by struggle. Each generation must fight the battle anew.
Will everyone be free someday? I don't know. I am not a believer in Messianic religion. I do know that struggling to be free and winning more and more freedom is full of meaning and brings value to life. The struggle for freedom is at the core of what it is to exist and the direction of evolution. We need not see the end to know the path of freedom is a good and holy one to walk.
Whether we are Jewish or not, we can all participate in the spirit of Passover. The struggle for freedom is everyone's business. I'll close with the famous reading by Pastor Martin Niemoller:
In Germany they first came for the Communists
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't Jewish.
Then they came for trade unionists,
And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
And I didn't speak up because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me --
And by that time no one was left to speak up.
Go in peace, make peace your path to freedom,be at peace knowing you are walking a good and holy path.
Copyright © 2001 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.
(1)You Shall Be As Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, p. 101 as quoted by Richard M. Litvak in his talk Truth of Consequences found at http://www.temple-emanuel.org/dvrahtorah/vol2no14.htm