In February, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, in collaboration with the Juneau Black Awareness Association and UAS, brought Rev. Bobby Lewis and Eustace Johnson to organize a gospel choir of Juneau folks. I attended the performance of the choir and felt the electricity and emotion in the room as the choir sang traditional gospel melodies interspersed with powerful narrative about the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas. The narratives gave power to the songs and the songs gave back power to the narrative. Together the experience of that Sunday afternoon was memorable and inspirational. The experience conveyed to me the blessing of hard won freedom, of terrible suffering that ends with liberation.
Lewis’ integration of narrative and gospel melodies reminded me of the upcoming Jewish festival of Passover which will begin this year on April 6. The Passover Seder, the most beloved Jewish festival of the year, is a home celebration that blends a powerful narrative interspersed with songs. The narrative of the Seder tells of the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt and weaves its way to the celebration of the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. The Seder also incorporates specific rituals, interactive conversations based on Scriptural passages, and the eating and drinking of symbolic foods culminating in a great feast that features traditional foods unique to the festival.
The ritual drama of the Seder is organized around a principle which gives to it a unique inspirational quality. The Rabbis teach in the Talmud, the great compendium of Jewish teaching, that the Passover Seder starts with the retelling of degradation and ends with celebratory praise (“matchil b’genut u’msayem b’shevah). Passover is not merely about feasting and singing, it is also a reenactment of the desperate and debilitating experience of slavery. The teaching demands that Seder participants acknowledge the past, to feel it however briefly, and to not ignore it. The terrible past is the precedent for the culmination of joy that follows.
Jewish tradition also gives a lot of attention and guidance to the Seder leader who is usually a grandparent or a parent or anyone with the courage and sense of responsibility to take charge leading this elaborate home observance. Tradition directs the leader to create an experience in which each person at the Seder, young and old, religious and secular, “really sees himself or herself as having gone out of Egypt.” In other words, an ideal Seder is one in which people personally identify with the story of liberation, imagining the experience of being a slave through the moment when the chains are removed from our ankles. One passage that is sung is “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” — not ‘our ancestors were slaves.’
The Passover Seder is a ritual drama that encourages identification with being a free person. The Seder teaches that a free person is not a complacent or unaware person. Freedom needs to be cherished, preserved, and celebrated again and again.
In Jewish tradition there is a practice of reciting blessings every morning to heighten awareness about the miracle of the body and life. At the top of the list, however, is a blessing that leaps out, which is different. It is a blessing that praises God for making me a “bnai chorin” — a free person. Freedom is a blessing. It cannot be taken for granted. It is a cultivated awareness that requires us to actively remember and to be aware of what it means to be free.
The Jewish teaching about freedom also urges participants to be sensitive to those who are enslaved and denied freedom in our own generation. The most frequently repeated verse in the Torah (the five Books of Moses) is a phrase that usually follows an ethical teaching or commandment: “Remember that you were slaves/strangers in Egypt.” It is not sufficient to celebrate our own freedom, but to live our lives committed to promoting freedom for those who are denied it.
If you wish to experience a Passover Seder, Juneau’s Congregation Sukkat Shalom offers a communal Seder open to the community the evening of April 7. Contact the congregation at 463-4333 or check its website for information at sukkatshalomalaska.net.
• Gartenberg moved to Juneau in July 2011. He is rabbi in residence at Congregation Sukkat Shalom and is director of the Jewish Educational Organization, New Face of Judaism-Panim Hadashot.