Purim, Good Friday and 40 Years Abirthing: From Disaster to Delight

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Today (March 21, 2008) is a strange day in the dance of sun, moon, and earth that make up the Christian and Jewish calendars.

For Christians, it is Good Friday -- the remembrance of how the Roman Empire tortured to death a great and troublesome Rabbi, and the foreshadowing of how just three days later the Rabbi was reborn into life, and there began the process by which he came to be understood as God's Own Self.

For Jews, it is Purim -- a festival of pun and paradox, in which the central text is a parody of history, telling the story of how a courageous woman and her uncle chose civil disobedience to save their people from a genocide - and won. How a pompous, stupid king is bamboozled by an ambitious, arrogant , and genocidal Prime Minister -- one might almost say, Vice-President. How everything is turned topsy-turvy, so that the gallows where a Jewish leader was to be hanged becomes the death-place of their tormentor. How God never appears in this story that might seem miraculous.

And, the ancient rabbis taught, on this day Jews are to get so far beyond normal categories as to be unable to distinguish "Blessed Mordechai" (one of the saving team) from "Accursed Haman" (the genocidal minister).

On the surface, the two festivals might seem utterly different: one focused on solemnity, the other on a joke. Yet they have this in common: They pluck delight from disaster, they see the deep oddity of a universe, God's universe, in which God's Presence is achieved through God's absence, in which the fullest life comes from the most degrading death, in which arrogance is brought low by laughter. And they see this oddity not as absurd - but fully meaningful.

Death and Resurrection? Christian theology, of course, centers on that rhythm: the days from today to Easter Sunday embody it. Traditional Jewish prayerbooks also praise the God Who "gives life to the dead," but most modern Jews have either deleted or ignored that passage.

Forty years ago, I was the kind of activist secular Jew who not only ignored that passage, but ignored the prayerbook altogether.

Yet precisely forty years ago I experienced a profound -- and profoundly unexpected -- death-and-rebirth of my own self, deeply intertwined with the American agonies of that spring, that year.

From the death of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, through the uprising of Black anger in the days just after and the use of the Army to put down this "slave revolt," and then the volcanic eruption of unexpected meaning just a few days later in the Passover of liberation from Pharaoh -- in all this I myself was reborn.

In the Seder that year, for the first time I really heard the ancient words in the Telling text: "In every generation, all human beings must look upon ourselves as if we ourselves, not our ancestors only, go forth from slavery to freedom."

And so I was reborn into a serious Jew, remaking and renewing the Judaism I walked into in every step of my walking.

And Martin Luther King was also reborn through his own death. That year, he was to have taken part in his first Passover Seder, at the home of his friend and fellow-troublemaker, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was instead called to a different Promised Land. But in thousands of Jewish homes in 1968, he was vividly present in the Seder, and then through the Freedom Seder the next year and long after.

That was forty years ago. Forty is an iconic number in biblical tradition: Forty days of rain as the Flood began, forty years of wandering in the Wilderness, forty days of fasting for Moses and then Jesus on the mountaintop, forty days of Lent.

Rabbi Jeff Roth teaches that this iconic "forty" is rooted in the forty weeks of pregnancy.

Each forty, a pregnant pause.

From 1968 to 2008, forty years of the pregnant pause after King's death, Robert Kennedy's death, the hopes of an America reborn killed off in a disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago and the police repression that not only surrounded it but intervened inside it. (I know; I was a delegate.)

Is the pregnancy completed? Forty years later, are we prepared to give birth?

Many Americans saw that fruition - and a hint of the future, for of course each birth is also a beginning, in every fruit are the seeds of the next generation.

Forty years later. Now.

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