From Passover into the Next Step: Pharaoh or Freedom in America?

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

Passover invites us to remember the past and reflect upon the present. After Passsover, how do we start walking our way into the future?

Four traditional questions are recited at the Passover Seder. But the real first question is this:

"Is Pharaoh our god, or is the Breath of Life?"

From Rabbi Jesus leading a march of palm-bearing Jews against the Roman Empire, where and when people had gathered to recall and celebrate the overthrow of an ancient despot ("Palm Sunday," in the Empire's provincial capital, Jerusalem, just before Passover time) ---

Forward to Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi chanting Black American freedom songs like "Go Down, Moses" --

The Exodus story has been used for centuries as an inspiration for resistance to tyrants.

We should also pay attention to the other side of the story: its brilliant description of Pharaoh's addiction to top-down, unaccountable power. We should pay attention because we are living through this history in America today. Indeed, the Passover Haggadah itself – the Telling of the liberation story that shapes the sacred dinner of Passover eve – says, "In every generation some will rise up to destroy us. In every generation, every human being must look upon himself, herself, as if we ourselves, not our ancestors only, go forth from slavery to freedom."

Yet few among the American Jewish heirs of Passover are drawing on this powerful tale in our own generation.

The story begins at the end of the Book of Genesis with a Pharaoh who feeds the whole nation during famine -– at the price of taking over all their land, turning yeoman farmers into serfs. Then comes a Pharaoh who turns his absolute power into a military addiction -- an aggressive army of chariots and an internal police that scapegoats the Israelite “foreign element,” enforces slavery, and attempts genocide. Finally this addiction to coercion shapes a Pharaoh who cannot step back from his own need for control and violence, even though it brings about disaster for himself and his country.

Pharaoh begins by hardening his own heart to the plight of the poor and powerless, and after a series of disasters (the "plagues") brought on by his own arrogance, his addiction takes over.

God –- read "Reality" –- takes over, and from then on it is God Who hardens his heart.

What is this like? -- Use heroin once, twice, thrice – and you are making a free choice. But at some point the addiction takes over, Reality takes over, God takes over. Now it is the heroin that is doing you, not you doing heroin.

If you choose hard-heartedness so long you get addicted to it, at some point you are no longer choosing: God, Reality, is hardening your heart.

And arrogance is not only a moral and spiritual malady. It breeds stupidity. For those who are utterly convinced of their own absolute rightness cannot hear the warnings of others, cannot pay attention to the signals from the world around them.

Pharaoh depends more and more on violence to control the rebellious world --- rebellious workers, his own rebellious daughter, the rebellious earth itself. Even when Pharaoh's own advisers shriek at him, "You are destroying Egypt!" he can no longer turn back.

At each stage, at each plague, Pharaoh pauses for a moment, but then falls back into its addictive march to disaster.

We have seen this happen in Washington -- twice. In June 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency reported to the UN a bleak picture of the probable effects of global "warming" on the US itself. A few weeks later, a reporter asked the President what he thought of the report. "Ohhh, bureaucrats!" sneered the president. Even a warning from his own advisers that his policies were endangering America did not deter him.

Just a few months ago, the same scenario. The Iraq Study Group, made up of Establishment luminaries (structurally, our equivalent of “Pharaoh’s own advisers”), warned that the Iraq war was weakening America. They called for a staged withdrawal of troops from Iraq and for direct discussions with Syria and Iran. But the Bush Administration’s pharaoh-like addiction to power and violence took over once again, and it decided to send more Americans to die in Iraq and decided to threaten – and perhaps to consummate – a war against Iran.

Today, we face not merely a single person but a set of interlocking institutions that are our "Pharaoh" -- Big Oil, the swollen military, the Imperial White House. This Pharaoh has so addicted itself to its own uncontrollable power that it can no longer make a free choice.

Unfortunately, when those who have great power insulate themselves in arrogance and violence, the disasters they create do not wound only themselves. They wound the whole society.

• They chose to ignore evidence that Al Qaeda was preparing a major strike inside the US,

• chose to ignore warnings of plans for a airliner hijacking,

• chose to ignore scientists' warnings about the onrushing climate crisis of global scorching,

• chose to ignore all the warnings that an invasion of Iraq would mire the US in a disastrous and unending occupation,

• chose to ignore all the evidence that Saddam had no mass-destruction weapons, and chose to invent evidence that he did,

• chose to smear, humiliate, and fire honest officials who questioned these falsities;

• chose to ignore warnings of hurricane disaster in New Orleans and chose to ignore the plight of hundreds of thousands of people who could not evacuate the city,

• chose as Attorney-General, Chief Justice, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court supporters of Presidential power to order the use of torture despite US and international law,

• chose to ignore the health and educational needs of Americans in order to funnel obscene amounts of money to those already rich.

The results of this arrogance have been enormous disasters. Plagues:


New Orleans.

The advance of global scorching and the melting of the Arctic ice.

The disappearance of health insurance for one-fourth of the American people.

The debacle of care for veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

The Oil/ / Bomb/ Power interlocking Pharaoh sent the present US government to war, killing more than 3,200 Americans so far and somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 Iraqis, partly for control of oil.

Katrina's ferocity owed a great deal to the global scorching that heated the Gulf beyond all historical records. And much of that scorching came from the over-use of oil. The hurricane's fury owed a great to the oil wells that made tatters of the Gulf Coast wetlands that had absorbed past storms. Many died because after the hurricane disaster, the National Guard that usually rescues and protects was far far away, fighting for oil. An entire city shattered, thousands dead, many more homeless. In great part for oil.

People die – and Big Oil makes the highest profits in world history.

In the biblical account of Pharaoh’s downfall, YHWH, the "Breath of Life," acts almost independently of human resistance. Pharaoh's oppression of the poor brings the earth itself into rebellion, and that is ultimately what topples him. In our world, it is possible for grass-roots energies to check the power of institutionalized pharaonic power.

We are not Pharaoh's "advisers." We are the sovereign people of the United States. Through elections, through mass demonstrations in Washington, through en-masse constituent visits to local district offices of members of Congress, through direct actions of refusal to cooperate with the machinery of war and oiloholic addiction, we can draw on the God-power inherent within us to check the unbridled use of Pharaoh’s power in our lives. Against our lives.

Congressional votes to force an end to the Iraq war are the first firm action by our representatives to say to the interlocking institutions of Big Oil, Big Army, and Big Presidency --"We will not obey your murderous orders, Pharaoh!" -- just as the ancient midwives Shifra and Puah refused to obey Pharaoh's murderous decree. I wish Congress had set the deadline much sooner, but they have remembered the Constitution, have remembered that the American people is sovereign, and have taken the first step forward in standing up to Pharaoh.

Will they keep moving forward? On the war? On the oiloholic addiction and its “drug lords” -- Big Oil -- that are dooming us to global scorching? On ending and punishing the disgusting use of torture and the illegal behavior of the FBI — our modern Pharaoh’s modern “overseers”? It is only if we take our stand that our representatives will stand fast.

The midwives who refused Pharaoh’s murderous orders revered the God Who is the Breath of Life, more than they feared the Pharaoh who claimed to be god --- and whom all Egypt obeyed as a god until that moment. Today it is the same question that we need to face: Is the Oil / Blood/Bomb interlock our god, or not? Is our oiloholic addiction our god, or not? Is Pharaoh our god or not? That is the root of our crisis, as it was so long ago.

Palm Sunday, Passover, our memories of Martin Luther King on April 4 -- are all moments for us to face this question. The first question.


Passover is about reflection - and action. In this letter, I want to reflect on where we have come in dealing with our generation's "Pharaoh" - and then invite and assist us all to take some action..

We have a lot to learn from the date of April 4 -- a date that this year, and in many years, coincides with Passover week.

It was the date of Dr. King's death, in 1968. It was also the date of his
greatest and most profound speech. Exactly one year before he was killed, he spoke at Riverside Church in New York City, before a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, calling for an end to the US war against Vietnam, naming the dangerous triplets besetting America -- militarism, racism, and materialism -- and warning that unless America was healed from them, a generation thence there would need to be a "Clergy and Laity Concerned About ... " another war.

And -- Here we are!

Dr. King was flanked at the CALCAV meeting by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Two years before, Heschel had come back home from a voting-rights march in Selma, Alabama, saying the march had made him feel as if his legs were praying. He had already been teaching what became an activist mantra – "In a free society, some are guilty – but all are responsible." Now he and King had to face angry attacks from some who had previously supported their work for civil rights and who claimed "responsibility" was divisible.

From the Black community, some argued that opposing the war was a distraction from civil rights work, and would alienate the Johnson Administration that had supported civil rights and initiated the war.

In the Jewish community, many leaders heeded quiet pressure from Israeli officials who wanted to keep American Jews quiet about the war lest the Johnson (and later Nixon) administration retaliate by dropping its support for Israel. But King and Heschel knew the war was a profound moral question. They refused to shut up.


In the Jewish community, there is one large organization that has both the numbers and the values to make a gigantic push to end the war. That is the Union for Reform Judaism, led by its Religious Action Center in Washington.

The URJ has just in the last month demanded that Congress set a time table to end the war. That was a huge step forward. It responded to the 77% of American Jews who, according to Gallup Polls, think the war a major mistake. It bespoke the will of the million American Jews who belong to Reform synagogues. And it reflected both Jewish values and Jewish interests.

But the URJ was immediately faced with an unprecedented public challenge by Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, who argued that the US occupation of Iraq is crucial to Israel's security. Note that Olmert's own "favorability" ratings among Israelis is below 10%. There is a general view in Israel that his policies have been stupid and self-destructive. Most Israeli security experts, who supported the US invasion of Iraq four years ago, now think it was a terrible mistake --breeding and training far more Arabs enraged at the US and Israel, teaching them far more effective tactics for attacking both, and greatly strengthening Iran -- a far more formidable opponent than Iraq was.

Yet Olmert's condemnation of the Reform action was the signal for attacks from various Jewish organizations -- especially one Orthodox group, which leaped at the opportunity to attack a Reform initiative. The Republican Jewish Coalition had already attacked the Reform decision, for obvious reasons.

Despite the broad support among American Jews for ending the war, a call from even a discredited Israeli Prime Minister evokes strong emotional support.

So -- what will the Reform movement and the Religious Action Center do to put teeth in its demand to end the war? Imaginably, under this pressure it will publicly defend the resolution it passed but do little to act on it. Or imaginably, it will move forward to mobilize American Jews into real action. Will the RAC make lobbying to end the war the first priority for its highly skilled and widely respected leadership and staff? Even more important, will the RAC mobilize its synagogue grass roots to flood Congress with visitors and mail to end the war?

We have already won one great victory: both houses of Congress have voted to set dates for ending the war. The House date is September 2008, and it is mandatory; the Senate date is six months earlier, but only advisory.

Now we have three crucial opportunities to act:

First, the differing Senate and House bills must be reconciled in conference committee. Our task should be to press for the mandatory provisions in the House bill, while also urging that the Senate's time scale be adopted.

President W is sure to veto the resulting bill. The Congress will vote on overriding the veto. Here we have a second opportunity to stiffen the resistance, winning new Members of Congress to the opposition as they face what an aroused public will do in the next election.

But two-thirds of both houses must vote to override the veto. Assume the veto is upheld. What then?

The conventional wisdom is that Congress must then cave in and pass an appropriation bill with no time table for ending the war, for fear that if it does not, it will be blamed for failing to send money to "support the troops." (Actually, of course, the money to keep getting them killed to no purpose.)

So that is the third opportunity. What if Congress were to pass again the exact same bill it passed before? What if the onus for signing the bill or getting no appropriation were put squarely on the President?

The Shalom Center will be making available to you the tools for turning up the heat on Congress in these three moments of opportunity. What about the organizations you, our members and subscribers, belong to? What will they be doing?

All our religious traditions teach that making peace is a sacred act. We can multiply our clout for peacemaking by persuading our communities to act with vigor.

(1) Will RAC press forward the mandatory House version of the time table, with the Senate's schedule?

(2) Will RAC mobilize the synagogues to urge the Congress to override W's veto?

(3) And when push comes to REAL shove, will RAC mobilize its grass roots to urge Congress to pass the same bill all over again?

I remember how the American public turned against the Vietnam War in 1968, but after Nixon was elected he kept it going for six more years. In those years, thousands of Americans and probably a third of a million Vietnamese were killed.

I am really frightened about some replay of that, especially with a president far far more stubborn -- I would say addicted --- to this war than Nixon was to his.

So I invite you into two sorts of action - one of them this very week; the other in about two weeks, when Congress is about to vote on turning the House and Senate bills into a single bill.

As Rabbi Heschel said that taking part in a civil-rights march was like praying with his legs, we invite you to pray with your hands now, by writing a letter.

The action that we invite you to do NOW is to write your local newspapers -- either general papers or the religious and community press where you live.

Later we will ask you to address Congress directly.

So please either write the largest newspaper in your city or write your local Jewish newspaper -- with a letter something like what follows - changing the text to meet your own values and experience. (You might add a sentence about your congregation, why you care about this, etc..)

Please send us a copy of your letter, either by Emailing it to or by sending an "earth-mail" copy to The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.


Shalom, salaam, peace ,
Rabbi Arthur Waskow,

Dear Editor,

I am glad that the Union for Reform Judaism has called on Congress to set a time table to end the Iraq war, thereby saving thousands of American lives, preventing even worse instability in the Middle East, and freeing great sums of money for meeting intense American needs for education, health care, and environmental healing.

I am sad to see that the prime minister of Israel and some other Jewish groups have criticized this decision. I strongly urge the Reform movement to move forward with vigorous action despite this criticism, affirming the will of the 77% of American Jews who have concluded this war is a terrible mistake. I hope the Reform movement will make it the highest priority to support the mandatory provisions of the end-the-war bill passed by the House of Representatives, with the earlier schedule of the Senate bill. If the President vetoes the bill, I also hope the Jewish community will organize strongly to override the veto or to send him the same schedules in a new bill.

With blessings that we give new meaning to the Passover message of freedom and justice-- .


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: