The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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The Whipping Man, by playwright Matthew Lopez, depicts an amazing historical convergence: the Civil War’s end, this nation’s long path of freedom and equality’s beginning, as well as the observance of Passover. And resting behind the curtain of promise for the things to come are the shackles of the past for the three characters of Lopez’s play: Caleb, the Jewish Confederate soldier returning home, and Simon and John, two newly-freed-men, once owned by Caleb’s family and still living in the family home.
The actors portraying these three men were at my seder experience last week, along with their director, Francine Thomas Reynolds, and two additional crew members. Francine had reached out to me and other members of the Jewish community of Jackson when New Stage Theatre announced that they would be presenting the play to the community. She was aware of the sensitivity of the play’s subject and wished to not only approach it with care but also to use it as an opportunity to engage in transformative conversations.
Some of those conversations started around our seder table at New Stage Theatre, as we interrupted the story of the Israelite’s freedom from Egypt to point out how the themes present back then were also present in the aftermath of the Civil War (depicted in the play), and – frankly – are still present with us today. These conversations, however, left us asking questions: “Who are our Pharaohs today? Who or what is holding us back from realizing our better selves? And, who is our Moses? Do we need a Moses?
These questions are some of the ones raised in this moving and thought-provoking play The Whipping Man. If you are in the Jackson area between now and March 9, I highly recommend that you come to partake of this unique, dramatic Passover experience. Certainly, you’ll leave inspired to address the challenges and answer the fundamental questions of our time!
“The Whipping Man” runs through this weekend. For more information about getting tickets, go to: www.newstagetheatre.com.
Today, as we reflect on the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some of his greatest lessons are also front and center, and very evident in settings near and far: the power of place, and the even greater power of community.
We are here in Mississippi, the controversial heart-center of Freedom Summer, the end point for the freedom rides. Mississippi, whose work-cut-out-for-us reality was spelled out in Dr. King’s most famous of speeches, “I Have a Dream”:
From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
A few weeks ago, from our desks here in Mississippi, several ISJL staff members joined a great video conference hosted by Jewish Women’s Archive, to go over their fantastic Freedom Summer curriculum resources. A few days ago, the staff here all gathered to discuss a film about inequality and discuss how we, as individuals and as an institution, can be a part of positive change. We partner with a diverse group of organizations, working to that end – Jewish and Christian and those of many other faiths, Southern and Northern and international.
Today, we also wanted to share an excerpt from our friends at Jewish& in which African American Jews share their thoughts on Dr. King’s legacy. Here’s a brief excerpt, and we strongly encourage you to read the entire piece:
“I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well. As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.”
Wherever we are and whatever our background, we can play a role in, as Sandra Lawson says, making the world “a better place for all.” All people, in all places. Let freedom ring from every mountain and molehill of Mississippi!