Remembrance and ritual: Passover and other celebrations of freedom

On the 9th of April, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, signaling the end of the Civil War and American slavery. In a significant coincidence, this monumental event in our nation’s history occurred during Passover.

Passover, or חספ (Pesach) in Hebrew, is an eight-day festival celebrated in early spring that commemorates the Jews being freed from years of slavery in Egypt. It is one of the most important and most widely observed Jewish holidays to remember  and celebrate the story of Exodus.

After many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Jews were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, God saw the people’s distress and sent a message to the Pharaoh through Moses to “send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” Despite numerous warnings, the Pharaoh refused to heed God’s command. God then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

When God visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, he killed all their firstborn but spared the Jewish people, “passing over” their homes which he had instructed be marked by the blood of a sacrificed lamb (hence the name of the holiday). The Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Jews left Egypt that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai to create a new home and a new life.

By following the rituals of Passover, observers re-live the freedom that their ancestors gained. It is an essential tradition to maintain faith and community, but also to keep the collective memory of a people’s shared history alive, to remind those who didn’t directly experience the event of its deep significance and defining quality.

During the Civil War, the Passover story took on a powerful resonance and was a reminder of the importance of unity in the face of a war that was splitting the country apart. Though there were clear parallels between Moses leading the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt and the Union freeing slaves, the circumstances of these two oppressed communities were very different.

The emancipation of over three million American slaves was not the work of one event or divine intervention. It was a hard-fought series of small victories over the course of many years starting with the dedicated work of abolitionists in the North and the former masters in the South who freed their slaves long before it was mandated. Change came to this country through the slow work of legislation, of assemblymen and lawyers and congressmen chipping away at the legal language that defined human beings in categories of wholeness. It was the work of visionary leaders, like the 16th President of the United States, who made unpopular proclamations that brought the debate over slavery into the forefront of the conversation about who Americans were as a people. It was the efforts and sacrifices of the Union soldiers who fought for a moral imperative and to keep their country intact. And it was the work of the thousands of black Americans who with patient dignity were able to maintain faith in this country and it’s ability to find the right path forward.

Unlike the story of Exodus, that presents the experience of the ancient Hebrews as of one mind, wholly unified by shared cultural and ethnic background and clear about the future that lay before them, the American slaves were fractured, a diverse group united by a terrible shared experience. They had come from dozens of countries of origin with a variety of languages and religious beliefs. Their experiences differed depending on whether they lived in a city or on a farm or plantation, whether they worked in the fields or were domestic slaves, which state in the South they lived in and what kind of people they worked for.

One of the biggest differences between the story of the Jews leaving Egypt and the slaves being freed is that the Jews were given somewhere to go. Their future was in part laid out for them, gifted by God as a promised land. The American slaves were freed, but to what future and given what opportunity? To be sure, freedom was far superior to slavery, but an uncertain future did not immediately guarantee a better way of life.

One could wonder whether a ritual like Passover could have been a powerful tool for healing and remembrance for the freed American slaves, a way to pass down from generation to generation the experience of slavery and the sweetness of freedom hard won. Would such a ritual have assisted in healing the racial divide in this country? Would the story of freedom won have become a defining narrative of who we are? Telling the story of our community means remembering some of the best and worst parts of our history. A ritual that allows us to celebrate those defining moments can help to keep a history alive.