Category Archives: Passover

Passover And The Presidential Race

April 18, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

At Purim time we had lots of fun this year. In our Purim spiel, with tongues firmly planted in cheek we connected Esther with Clinton, Obama with Haman, Mordecai with Huckabee, and Achashveros with McCain. There were many humorous parallels, none of which corresponded to full reality.

So, here we are at Passover and perhaps we can find more comparisons. How about Moses Obama- a young man willing to make change, though he certainly has no speech impediment. Then we have Miriam Clinton- the woman previously behind the scenes, who asserts herself on various occasions and Aaron McCain- the elder statesman. Again my analogies are not meant to be anything other than fun. So you can transform Pharaoh into whichever candidate you do not like.

Passover is our most contemporary holiday. Our Haggadah has always been a work in progress. It was established by the rabbis of the Talmud, but is always evolving. There are lots of activities for children with the search for the afikomen, four questions, lots of songs and frogs jumping all over. To whatever extent that you are able, as you sit around your seder table I encourage dialogue on contemporary issues, while reflecting on ancient themes. With a presidential campaign raging, once the slogans and pettiness are put aside, our values suggest some very serious issues. I hope that the candidates will address them, and we must do the same. Let’s look at three teachings:

We begin our seder with the invitation: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Poverty and hunger are real in America. There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of  the less fortunate of our society. While the middle class cannot be ignored, Jewish tradition historically understood the concept of communal responsibility for those falling through the cracks. As I shared in this week’s e-mail message, by way of our Synaplex program last Shabbat, we provided food for three different groups in our community, who are hungry. Hopefully you regularly bring food to our Food Bank. Let us think about them all, raise our sensitivity and find ways to make a difference.

The Egyptians are not the only ones who have experienced plagues. Those who have been with me for seders know that I regularly ask people to mention contemporary issues plaguing us. We will often hear: Violence, FEMA, insurance companies, lice, substance abuse, cancer and more.

Perhaps one of the greatest contemporary plagues is our concern for the environment, including the greenhouse effect, global warming and diminishing natural resources. This is a national, even international issue, which needs to be addressed. I do not pretend to understand it all. Science was never my best subject. However there are enough scientists out there today, who are sounding alarms that we cannot ignore the issue.

As opposed to being overwhelmed by global responses, we can think locally. At my home I am using those new light bulbs. I actually think my electric bills are down a little. I bring my own reusable grocery bags to the supermarket as I of course use scrip for my purchases. I am looking forward to the return of recycling. Though I still have my gas guzzlers in the driveway, I am contemplating changes.

I would like to see this congregation become more “green.” Though I am not sure exactly what that means, I have raised the issue at the board level. I can’t say there was a resounding response of support. This can include our being more conscious of recycling paper and other items, using real dishes and silverware as opposed to disposable. We might even want to consider the feasibility of solar panels on our roof for electricity. Perhaps someone present tonight wants to take the lead in exploring possibilities. Of course we want it to be cost effective, which is to say it should not cost us more. Then again, can we afford the ultimate price that looms? Sitting around your seder table, explore your thoughts, share green ideas for our homes and our synagogue home.

The major theme of Passover is “From Slavery To Freedom.” We read in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as bring freed from Egypt.” We Jews have a heritage of enslavement, discrimination and persecution which colors how we look at the world. Grounded in our faith we cry out against events in Sudan and Darfur, where tribes are being exterminated, families brutalized and modern slavery continues. In a global world, we cannot stand idly by while our neighbors bleed.

Yet, we are not the only people to have experienced slavery and oppression in this country. Last month Presidential Candidate Barak Obama addressed the issue of race in America. Just as our experience informs who we are as a community, I believe that he eloquently presented a message that deserves our attention. This should not be perceived as an endorsement on my part, but rather an appreciation of the issue that he has raised.

Yes, it was a political speech, as he attempted to differentiate himself from his Pastor, Rev. Wright, whose words at times have been inflammatory. It would have been politically expedient for Obama to simply repudiate the man, but instead he embraced his Pastor, but disagreed with some of his message. As a clergyman I can certainly identify with that. After almost 25 years as your rabbi, I imagine that I have said a great deal from this pulpit with which you disagree, taken positions you find abhorrent, but you know my heart. You know the context of my life and the ultimate values upon which I base my views, and you are still here. Senator Obama has done the same with his Pastor.

However, he has accomplished more than that, utilizing the opportunity to take a politically dangerous position. Though of mixed racial heritage, he clearly identified himself as a black man, an African American. That should be irrelevant in this day and age, but we know that it is not. And it is likely an obstacle to his election. Still he tackled the issue of race in America in a courageous way.

Part of his approach, inspired by his Pastor was based in faith, just as ours is. Describing the first time he went to his church he writes: “People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up to the rafters… And in that single note- hope!- I heard something else at the foot of the cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. These stories- of survival, and freedom and hope- became our story, my story; the blood that spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; … the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about… memories that all people might study and cherish- and with which we could start to rebuild.”

Just as our Jewish narrative and this synagogue shape our members, his minister and his church have contributed to who he is as a man and as a clergyman; I can certainly appreciate that. He of course went on to discuss race in this country, which hopefully will be a catalyst for a higher level of dialogue. Racial divisions in this land continue to be a major concern. The legacy of segregated schools is inferior schools for African Americans. The legacy of discrimination in housing and jobs is poverty and the major income gap between blacks and whites. The legacy of the past has led to impoverished African-American neighborhoods, violence and the erosion of the black family. We certainly are aware of this in New Orleans and it is a reality throughout America.

Rev. Wright has been fighting these forces that have been putting down his community for more than a generation. Senator Obama correctly points out that part of his minister’s failure of vision is that he dwells in the past: “as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country- a country that made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old- is still irrevocably bound to the tragic past. But what we know- what we have seen- is that America can change. That is the true genius of the nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope- the audacity to hope- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Is that not the essential message of Passover that we will observe tomorrow night? As you sit around your seder tables, I urge that you take your time; think about the words you are saying; reflect on their meaning. Find the message of hope and how we can make a difference for those who are hungry, how to eradicate the challenges that plague us and truly identify with the enslaved.

In this way our Pesach will be truly meaningful.