Spring Sermon
By A.D. Freudenheim  

5 April 2004

I often try to write columns around major Jewish holidays because the themes provide such convenient opportunities for reflection Although the “high holy” days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may seem like the most meaningful of these, the spring holiday of Passover is my favorite because of it’s focus on freedom and renewal, which always mixes so well with the arrival of springtime.

Passover is a very American holiday. The founding mythologies of this country wrap up a number of Passover’s themes, including religious persecution, slavery, and the salvation of freedom. The language of the Declaration of Independence – of the call for political freedom, for dissolving the unfair and over-tight bonds that constrained one people to another – mirrors strongly the demands put to Pharoah by Moses. Jefferson, Washington, and others often seem prophetic figures in American history, visionary leaders whose motivations and inspirations must have been divine, for how else could they have known, as Moses did, the justness of their cause? And although American’s celebrate a holiday pf “Thanksgiving” in November, timed with the late harvest, there should be a springtime version of the holiday, to mark the Pilgrims’ survival through the harsh New England winter and the regenerative powers that come with longer days of sunshine and the warming of the earth itself.

There are darker reflections of these themes, too. After the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, when they entered the Promised Land, they massacred local inhabitants; it was their right, after all – the land had been promised to them (and was, arguably, theirs generations before). Likewise, American immigrants, even before there was a United States to which they could officially immigrate, perpetrated an ongoing series of massacres against the Native American populations, and continued this fighting well into the middle of the 19th Century. Nor was slavery unheard of among the Israelites, despite their own history of being slaves; for example, Deuteronomy V. 14. makes clear that slaves are to be given the same respect with regard to the Sabbath that their masters take for themselves. Of course, the Bible has been used to justify many unjust actions in American history, not least among them American slavery and discrimination against African-Americans, until religiously-minded Abolitionists turned the tide on this prejudicial thinking and such grossly-literal interpretations of ancient texts.

One of Judaism’s strongest attributes is its emphasis on learning from history and the mistakes of the past – and this, too, is a very American quality. While much of the language of contemporary American politics often seems more overtly Christian (as with President George W. Bush’s sense of certainty and mission, which he seems to derive from a belief in Jesus Christ; nor is Mr. Bush a particularly good example of someone willing to learn from history) there is an American sensibility that our strength comes not just from our willingness to act but from our proper consideration of action; from the belief that our strength is internal, and bound up with our freedom and sense of justice, and not driven solely by external forces or actions. Of course, this may be why both America and Israel are presently in such political distress: this aspect of character and internal strength has given way to a need to show an external power through military strength. But the story of Pharaoh's army – which far outnumbered and out-armed the enslaved Israelites, and yet were devoured by the waters of the opened sea – could be a lesson for both nations. And Moses’ sister, Miriam, was scolded for celebrating the deaths of Pharaoh’s men; perhaps we should all remember not to rejoice in the sufferings of our enemies, either, as is currently the unfortunate trend.

End of sermon.

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