What you make of liberation, that is the trick. Can you, unshackled, set someone else free?
– from “exodus and after” by Cynthia Greenberg.
I just attended my first Passover Seder. For those, like me, who are new to this tradition, Seder is a gathering of remembrance of the Jewish story of liberation from slavery. I’m 50. One is not supposed to be a racial justice advocate attending his first Seder at 50!
I did once “observe” a Seder in Portland, Oregon circa 1991. It took place on the anniversary of the murder of an Ethiopian man named Mulugeta Seraw by neo-Nazi skinheads . The setting was a shallow gully in a park chosen because it had been a site of frequent hate crimes. I didn’t actually see much of the Seder. I mostly looked across and over it to the other side of the gully because I was there with other non-Jewish members of the community who were acting as security.
I have only a vague memory of that Seder in ’91, but share the experience, not to excuse my ignorance of Seder, but as a reminder that the struggle against anti-Semitism is by no means over.
On a walk with one of the hosts in the few hours before the Seder, I admitted with some embarrassment that I’d never attended one and wasn’t sure of the details of the ceremony. He leaned in and said: “what you should know about Seder is that it’s not just about the liberation of the Jews from slavery. It is also about the fact that once freed, the Jews never reached the promised land.”
You see, to him, Seder is not just a ceremony meant to moor Jews to their history of slavery and liberation. It also acknowledges that the journey toward justice is never ending. Liberation is ours, but justice? It lies just ahead. Keep on.
This notion of keeping on will stay with me long after the details of the evening have been lost to time. After all, few people have suffered as have Jews. Their endurance in the face of centuries of persecution stands as one of the great testaments to human endurance and grace.
For me, in my work, it serves as a source of much needed inspiration. After all, struggling against racism is no doubt a life long commitment. Racism is a defining feature of our society. Our Constitution and the Federalist compromise were designed to ensure the perpetuation of slavery. We are a society whose founding document, filled as it is with language about freedom and liberty, was written by men who owned slaves, regarded Native Americans as subhuman savages, and refused suffrage to women. The founders were the initiators of a thousand lies that have been told and retold for hundreds years to the point of being accepted as truth within the bounds of the culture they birthed, and all to justify what they’d done.
The seemingly impossible exodus from Egypt, Moses’s great sacrifice, and the journey toward the promised land lends perspective to what can sometimes feel like an impossible uphill struggle to win racial justice.
So this Seder will not be my last. I was moved and made hopeful, not just by the Jews’ great accomplishment, but by how much we hold in common. Maybe that was the most heartening aspect of it for me.
Racism, and all bigotries, is in a way like a Chinese finger puzzle. The more those who are captured by it attempt to pull away from one another, the tighter the grip of the trap. But if we do what is least intuitive to us and push toward one another, the trap releases, and we are freed.