Passover and America Today

April 4 is in the Western calendar the 35th yohrzeit of Dr. Martin Luther King.

It is also the day in 1967 when he gave a profound speech at Riverside Church in New York City—not only criticizing the Vietnam war but making an even deeper critique of the deadly triplets, as he called them, in American society—racism, militarism, and materialism.

Beside him on that day was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who shared with Dr. King the official pressures and the official scorn that came to their prophetic witness. They never surrendered to that scorn and pressure.

In April 1968, Dr. King was planning to join the Heschel family for the Passover Seder. His death prevented that celebration.

One year after that, on April 4, 1969, the first Freedom Seder was held in Washington DC, in memory of Dr. King and in commitment to carry on the work of liberation. The Seder was born on the first night of Passover in 1968, ten days after Dr. King was killed.

That night I found myself walking home to prepare the Seder, walking past detachments of the US Army in the streets of Washington. They were enforcing a curfew against Black people who had risen up in response to the murder of Dr. King, and they had a Jeep with a machine gun pointed at the block I lived on.

I recognized the story of Passover being acted out in the streets of my own city. The Freedom Seder, honoring the search of every people for their freedom, was born in that moment.

At the end of this post, I am appending a passage from Dr. King's speech at Riverside.

Now let us turn to our own approaching Festival of Freedom.

The daylight hours of April 16, the day before the evening when Passover begins, is traditionally a time to fast—the Fast of the Firstborns.

The fast is about the danger of violence, and we might therefore take special note of it this year—by peaceful action in the world as a kind of fast, whether we fast from food or not.

The fast honored and mourned the deaths of every firstborn in Egypt's slave society, while celebrating the deliverance of Israelite firstborns. By committing themselves to freedom and walking through an doorway marked in blood (like the birthing womb), they were born into a new community.

The Torah teaches us that every Egyptian firstborn suffered because the Pharaoh was so addicted to his own arrogance and power that he would not turn back from his destructive path even when his own advisers warned him he was destroying his own country.

This is the great archetypal tale of human literature on the arrogance of power, and its self-destructive outcome.

Sound familiar?

For many firstborns who observed the traditional practice, the Fast has been annulled by studying passages or Torah and then eating to celebrate the study.

But perhaps this year we should prepare for April 16 an act of our own that affirms peace. Perhaps we should remember Isaiah's outcry that a true fast means feeding the hungry — and give food or money to buy food:

Food for the suffering children of the world and of those American neighborhoods where hunger has reappeared.

Why has hunger reappeared in this richest of all nations? —Why are schools rotting, teachers despairing, hospitals closing, in this richest of all nations?

In part because of the money devoted to the military, to enormous tax breaks for the military contractors like Halliburton and the oil companies that will profit greatly in money and in power from this war, and from the extra tax burden of the war itself.

So whether we fast from food or not on April 16, let us support agencies of bravery and compassion that seek to empower the poor of every people.

In the Jewish community, that means agencies like the American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Fund for Justice—both of whose leaders have spoken out against the Iraq War, while their agencies serve the deepest values of the Jewish people.

I urge you to call them between now and April 16, to ask how you can help them. (Their numbers are 212/736-2597 and 212/213-2113.)

And on April 16, let helping them be your own Fast of the Firstborn.

Facing Pharaoh, we are all first-borns. Seeking freedom, we are all first-borns. Pursuing peace and justice, we are all first-borns.

Time for our rebirth.

L' Shalom,


Rabbi Arthur Waskow,
Director The Shalom Center


From Dr. King, April 4, 1967:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

The People Are Important

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light."

We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated.

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept—so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force—has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says:

"Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on.

Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets?

Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

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