I believe with perfect faith that I am the descendant of slaves.
That’s actually something of a cardinal Jewish belief, and in the eyes of my faith, it is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. To the contrary, it is a rather noble lineage and a very sacred heritage that is recalled at every Jewish holiday and worship service.
Behind it, we believe, is an inspirational and enduring story for people of every age, and in the spring of every year, Jewish families gather around their Passover dinner tables with friends and retell the story of ancient Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the wonders God performed on our behalf.
During that ceremony, we proudly declare “Avadim hayinu l’pharaoh b’mitzrayim. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” and in accordance with the holiday ritual prescribed, certain foods set on the Passover table take on unique and sacred meanings.
Matzah is eaten for the duration of the week-long holiday because unleavened bread was the unsavory ‘bread of affliction’ that our ancestors ate while they were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Horseradish is also ritually consumed as a present and vicarious reminder to us in our own day and age of the bitterness of slavery that our ancestors were forced to endure.
Salt water into which parsley is dipped is a reminder of the salty tears that our slave ancestors individually and collectively shed because they were deemed by others to be an inferior and denigrated caste of people.A mixture of apples, nuts and wine (or grape juice) called charoset is a reminder of the mortar (the mixture of earth and straw) that our slave ancestors used to cast the heavy bricks that built the Egyptian garrison cities of Pithom and Raamses.
Finally, and at its appropriate point in the ritual, 10 drops of wine (or grape juice) are poured from each participant’s cup as a reminder of the 10 plagues that God wrought upon Pharoah and all of Egypt in that ancient struggle for redemption and freedom.
We do all this not for ourselves, but specifically for our children so that they, too, will know from whence and from whom they have come, and so that they, in turn, will tell those who come after them that once upon a time their ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but that God intervened with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and set us free. And we’ve been doing this in one form or another for more than 3,000 years.
This month of February is Black History Month, and it reminds all of us that the black community has a strikingly similar story to tell regarding the strength of the human spirit, and of the manifestation of God’s will in human life and destiny.
Their experience of slavery right here on these shores, and the struggle for civil rights that subsequently ensued, so closely parallel ancient Israel’s account because they both move from slavery toward freedom; they both begin with degradation and rise to dignity; they both open with justice denied and advance toward the kingdom of God; and they both are stories for all people and all ages.
So while the annual Jewish observance of Passover is still weeks away, Black History Month is a time for us now to reflect upon the ongoing redemption of a people that is an account just as sacred and as meaningful as any of the past. In it, our spirits are stirred by the lives of martyrs such as Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, as well as by those of heroes such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In it, we sense God’s presence moving in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March and the March on Washington.
“Avadim hayinu. We were slaves.” That’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s a very noble lineage in my faith, and generations of Jewish tradition clearly indicate that if the experience of, and liberation from, slavery is effectively and ritually transmitted from one generation to, and for the sake of, the next, it can have sacred and enduring meaning.
Larry Schlesinger is rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Macon.