Friday, April 6, 2012

Riding the Underground Railroad to the Passover Seder

Today, April 6, 2012, is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, the first “great and terrible” battle of the Civil War. (In his new book, Shiloh, 1862, author Winston Groom examines how this battle, which “solved nothing, gained nothing, proved nothing” was a turning point for how military and political leaders understood the gravity of the war, and the unfathomable casualties that would follow).

Tonight is also the beginning of Passover, the celebration of Israelite freedom from Egyptian slavery and the perpetual Jewish hope to bring redemption to all who are oppressed, wherever they may be. For this reason, we refer to this season as z’man chereteynu – the “time of our freedom.”

There have always been parallels drawn between the experience of the ancient Israelites at the hands of Pharaoh and that of the African slaves here in the U.S. This is poignantly shown at Passover, especially while sharing the narratives during the seder itself.

This Passover, the compelling analogies have taken on an even greater significance: during this past week while in Cincinnati, I visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (; this fascinating museum chronicles the history of the Underground Railroad and teaches once again how the effort to abolish slavery in this country was among the greatest accomplishments ever undertaken by our forebears, and yet its challenges still saddle our society today. This visit was so powerful as I went with my children – who have reached the point of being able to understand and appreciate the profound meaning of our past, as well as to personalize its questions. As the Haggadah demands: “in each generation a person must consider himself as if personally freed from Egypt.”

Driving home from the Queen City, we listened to an NPR interview with Winston Groom. During the conversation, I understood something clearly for the first time (a surprise to this rabid student of American history). It has long been evident that the Civil War remains the most vital episode in our nation’s development – as this period brought an end to slavery, further coalesced the country as a United States, and also brought to light key issues (racism, sexism, economic disparity, etc.) that plague us to this day. As Groom spoke, I finally “got” why this topic resonates so dearly with so many of us: the Civil War and its origins and outcome is certainly a most imperfect time in our history. Its lessons are best told through narratives, which just like those in the book of Genesis, allows us to relate to people in a different time and situation because of our common humanity. These accounts – mythical or historical – become real and important as they echo in our hearts and minds.

Bernard Malamud said that the purpose of freedom is to create it for others. In this season of renewal, may the stories of freedom’s struggle inspire us to bring emancipation to all, no matter what their chains.

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