Martin Luther King, April 4, & the Freedom Seder

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow [This is an excerpt from my book Godwrestling -- Round 2, which is available from The Shalom Center by clicking here.

The Godwrestle began for me before I knew it was a wrestle, before I had the language to describe it. It began just minutes before Passover in April, 1968. I was 34 years old, had grown up in a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore with a strong sense that community, neighborhood itself, was warmly Jewish; that freedom and justice were profoundly, hotly Jewish -- and that Jewish religion was boring boiler-plate. Except for celebrating the Passover Seder, which brought family, community, freedom, and justice into the same room, I had long ago abandoned the rhythms of Jewish religion.

And then on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered.

I was not just a spectator to his passionate life and death. I had spent nine years in Washington working day and night against racial injustice and the Vietnam War -- behind a typewriter on Capitol Hill and at the microphone on countless college campuses, sitting in unbearably hot back rooms of Convention Hall in Atlantic City in 1964 when Dr. King came hobbling on a broken leg to beg support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, marching in 1967 at the Pentagon against the Vietnam War, cruising D.C. streets in a sound truck (with my four-year-old son perched next to me), to turn out votes for Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

On the evening of April 3, Dr. King spoke to a crowd in Memphis: “I am standing on the mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land. I may not reach there, but the people will.” Echoes of Moses. By the next night, he was dead.

By noon the next day, Washington, my city, was ablaze. Touch and go it was, whether 18th Street — four houses from my door — would join the flames. Just barely, our neighborhood’s interracial ties held fast.

By April 6, there was a curfew. Thousands of Blacks were being herded into jail for breaking it. No whites, of course; the police did not care whether whites were on the streets. My white friends and I tried to turn their blindness to good use: For days we brought food, medicine, doctors from the suburbs into the schools and churches of burnt-out downtown Washington.

And then came the afternoon of April 12. That night, Passover would begin. We would gather -- my wife and I , our son, our daughter (just nine months old), with a few friends, for the usual ritual recitation of the Telling of our freedom. Some rollicking songs. Some solemn invocations. Some memories from Seders of the past, in the families where our fathers had chanted -- some of them in Hebrew or Yiddish, some in English.

A bubble in time, a bubble isolated from the life, the power, the volcano of the streets. Perhaps, when the rituals were over and the kids had been initiated into the age-old ritual, had taken their first look into this age-old mirror in which Jews saw ourselves as a band of runaway slaves , we might put aside the ancient book and talk about the burning -- truly, burning -- issues of our lives.

Pharaoh’s Army

So I walked home to help prepare to celebrate the Seder. On every block, detachments of the Army. On 18th Street, a Jeep with a machine gun pointing up my block.

Somewhere within me, deeper than my brain or breathing, my blood began to chant: “This is Pharaoh’s army, and I am walking home to do the Seder.”

This is
and I am walking home
to do
the Seder.

This is
army ...”

King’s speech came back to me. “Standing on the mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land...” The songs we had sung in Atlantic City four years before with Fannie Lou Hamer, who had come from a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack to confront the Democratic Party: “Go tell it on the mountain, let my people go!” “Must be the people that Moses led, let my people go!” The sermons I had heard Black preachers speak, half shouting, half chanting: “And on the wings of eagles I will bring you, from slavery, from bondage, yes! -- from slavery, to be My people -- yes, my beloved people.”

Yes, this is Pharaoh’s army, and I am walking home to do the Seder.

Not again, not ever again, a bubble in time. Not again, not ever again, a ritual recitation before the real life, the real meal, the real conversation.

For on that night, the Haggadah itself, the Telling of our slavery and our freedom, became the real conversation about our real life. The ritual foods, the bitterness of the bitter herb, the pressed-down bread of everyone’s oppression, the wine of joy in struggle, became the real meal.

For the first time, we paused in the midst of the Telling itself, to connect the streets with the Seder. For the first time, we noticed the passage that says, “In every generation, one rises up to become an oppressor”; the passage that says, “In every generation, every human being is obligated to say, we ourselves, not our forebears only, go forth from slavery to freedom.”

In every generation. Including our own. Always before, we had chanted these passages and gone right on. Tonight we paused. Who and what is our oppressor? How and when shall we go forth to freedom?

To my astonishment, these questions burned like a volcano within me, erupting like the volcano in my city. Why did I care to make this connection? Why was this ancient tale having such an effect on me? How could I respond?

What’s A Midrash?

During the next six months, over and over when I faced some crisis in the world, some element of the Jewish story erupted inside me -- often in my forebrain only dimly understood, yet with such volcanic power in my heart and belly that I could not turn away.

In the fall, I found myself preparing for the next Passover by writing a Haggadah of my own, a script for our own family Seder. I hoped it would deliberately make happen in the future what had already happened, with no deliberation, in the midst of turmoil. I dug out my old Haggadah, the one I had been given when I turned 13, the one with Saul Raskin’s luscious drawings of the maidens who saved Moses from the river, the one that stirred my body each spring, those teen-age years.

Into its archaic English renderings of Exodus and Psalms, I intertwined passages from King and Thoreau, Ginsberg and Gandhi, the Warsaw Ghetto and a Russian rabbi named Tamaret -- wove them all into a new Telling of the tale of freedom. Where the old Haggadah had a silly argument about how many plagues had really afflicted Egypt, I substituted a serious quandary: Were blood and death a necessary part of liberation, or could the nonviolence of King and Gandhi bring a deeper transformation?

I had written half a dozen books -- on military strategy, disarmament, race relations, American politics -- but this was different: this book was writing me. I had no idea whether it made any sense to do this; I knew only that I could not stop. When I had finished, I called around to find a Washington rabbi who might be sympathetic. I asked him to read my draft: was this a crazed obsession or a good idea?

Two days later, he called me: “I love it, Waskow. You’ve taken the story into our own hands, as the rabbis said God wanted the fleeing slaves themselves to do. Do you know that midrash? The one where God refuses to split the Red Sea until the Jews have gone into the water, up to their noses?”

“What’s a midrash?” said I.

“Oho!” said he, and even over the phone I could feel the excitement rise. “The rabbis would take the ancient text, and read it in new ways. On this one, where the Torah says the people ‘went into the sea on the dry land,’ the rabbis ask, ‘Which was it? How could it be both sea and dry land?’ And they answer that the people went in while it was still sea; only then did it become dry land.

“You see? -- the people had to act. The rabbis took the text into their own hands because they wanted the people to take history into their own hands. The text at first glance seems to leave the act to God; but the rabbis reread this oddity of text to mean the people acted.

“That’s midrash. Want to read some?”

So I borrowed a volume of this “midrash,” and I fell in love. A whole new language that my heart had searched for all these years, a whole new language I had never known existed. A language of transformation-through-renewal, a language that drew on an ancient language to make it deeply new. A language of serious play that could, with a wink, turn reality in a new direction and claim it was simply uncovering a meaning that was already there. A language of puns, serious and funny puns that took as cosmic teaching the clang of words and phrases with each other.

And this, the rabbi taught me, was what my new Haggadah was already: a midrash on the ancient text that turned it in a new direction. What neither he nor I expected was that as I was reinterpreting the text, the text was reinterpreting me. Turning me in a new direction, making a new me that was a midrash on the old “I.”

On April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of Dr. King's death, the third night of Passover, a group i had just recently discovered -- "Jews for Urban justice" -- lifted the wprds I had written off the page into a Freedom Seder where about 800 people, Jews and Christians, Blacks and whites, joined in the basement of a Black church in Washington DC to celebrate Freedom together. In every generation --


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