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Rabbi Edward Bernstein

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Passover Is a Time to Renew Jewish-African American Common Cause

Posted: 04/ 4/2012 12:20 pm

The following are derived from remarks delivered by Rabbi Bernstein at an Interfaith Unity Seder convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Palm Beach County, Florida, on March 29. The seder included members of Rabbi Bernstein's congregation, Temple Torah of Boynton Beach, Fla., and members of St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church of Boynton Beach, led by Pastor Lance Chaney.

The main point of seder is teaching the next generation. If you could boil down the Haggadah to one central verse it would be: B'chol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo ke'ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim. In every generation, every person must see him or herself as having gone personally out of Egypt.

In every generation, we strive to relate to the text in new ways that speak to us so that we can relate to the Exodus experience. Just about every year there's at least one major new edition of the Haggadah that's published. One of the newest big hits is the "New American Haggadah," edited by acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer.

Foer writes in the introduction:

"Jews have a special relationship to books, and the Haggadah has been translated more widely, and reprinted more often, than any other Jewish book. It is not a work of history or philosophy, not a prayer book, user's manual, timeline, poem or palimpsest -- and yet it is all these things. The Torah is the foundational text for Jewish law, but the Haggadah is our book of living memory. We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy. Here we are, embarking on an ancient, perennial attempt to give human lives -- our lives -- dignity."

In the centuries' long struggle of both African Americans and Jews to preserve human dignity, two towering personalities from the 20th century stand out in this quest: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., he described the experience by saying he felt as if his feet were praying. As Heschel taught, prayer does not just take place in the mind or heart. It is a whole-body experience. Prayer must lead to action to create a better world.

A well-known story captures the essence of the importance of human action. A man is shipwrecked. He is treading water in the ocean trying not to drown. A man in a raft comes by and tells the man to jump in. The man says no, the Lord will provide. A larger emergency rescue ship comes by and throws the man a life preserver. He says no thanks, the Lord will provide. A helicopter flies overhead and lowers a rope ladder. The man waves it off because, of course, the Lord will provide. The man drowns. When he reaches the gates of heaven, he is irate. He goes to meet his Maker directly. He says he was a good man who prayed -- why didn't the Lord provide? God says, what are you talking about? I sent you a raft, a ship and a helicopter, and you turned them down. Praying with our feet means not just saying words. We have to be like that helicopter pilot and take action to assist God in creating a better world.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg is a contributor to the New American Haggadah. In reference to the passage about the obligation of every generation, he writes the following:

"'Who can say we actually left? Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt,' Michael Walzer wrote. Do you live in a place where some people work two and three jobs to feed their children, and others don't even have a single, poorly paid job? Do you live in a community in which the rich are fabulously rich, and the poor humiliated and desperate? Do you live among people who worship the golden calves of obsessive acquisitiveness, among people whose children are blessed by material abundance and cursed by spiritual impoverishment? Do you live in a place in which some people are more equal than others? In America, the unemployment rate for African Americans is nearly twice as high as it is for whites. Infant mortality in the black community is twice as high as it is among whites. ... America is a golden land, absolutely ... [b]ut it has not yet fulfilled its promise."

Our text in the Haggadah is a call to action. Our children ask what the seder is for, and we must respond in word and in deed that it's about our efforts to preserve human dignity.

The Israelites may have left Egypt, but in many ways, we still experience Egypt. Humans still treat people who are different as "other." Until that stops, we are all still enslaved to prejudice and its consequences. We only need to look at the two biggest news stories of the past month. In Toulouse, France, a rabbi and three young children were killed in a Jewish school for no reason other than they were Jews. In Sanford, Fla., Trayvon Martin was killed for "walking while black." We come together at the seder table to make it a table of brotherhood and sisterhood. It's a table of celebrating our common humanity and learning from one another in our differences.

Dr. King had plans to spend Passover seder in New York with Rabbi Heschel at his home in April 1968. Tragically, King was killed just days before. While we don't have giants in our midst today like King and Heschel were in their day, the African American and Jewish American communities must still come together to carry on the work of Dr. King and Dr. Heschel.

Our task before us on Passover is to teach our children: Don't be complacent. Don't ignore the world. Be a part of the world. See the suffering around you and feel is personally. Do something about it. Feel the sense of liberation when you bring relief and hope. Let your feet do the praying. May we be so blessed.

 

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