22 Jan Bo: Remembering from Whence You Came
With Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday commemoration and the recent theatrical opening of the movie “Selma” there has been a lot about the African-American Civil Rights Movement over the past few days here in sunny Southern California, where I’m spending some time with my mother. I imagine that this year in particular, after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, there is a bit less discussion of what has been accomplished in the field of racial equality since the late 1950’s and 1960’s, and more about what still needs to be done.
In any case, a considerable amount of newsprint, airtime and bandwidth has been devoted over the last week or so to King’s legacy. Even when logging on to the wifi at Starbucks one is encouraged to get involved:
There were, of course, many others who helped lead the African American community in the ongoing struggle for equality here in the US. One such person was writer and activist James Baldwin, known not only as an African-American advocate, but also as an early gay activist and thinker. In his introduction to a collection of essays published in 1985, two years before his death, Baldwin speaks out on how white Americans have congratulated themselves on all the progress that has been made, yet are at the same time quite unaware of themselves and the situation as it. He talks about how he, as a black Christian was raised to “do your first works over”:
To do your first works over is to reexamine everything. Go as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.” (The Price of the Ticket, p.xix)
This is essentially his commentary on a passage from the book of Revelations:
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works… (KJV, 2:5)
Telling and retelling the story of where our people have come from and how we have arrived at where we are is key to the Jewish experience in general, and in particular, in keeping the Passover holiday, which is mentioned in this week’s Torah portion:
You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as the Lord has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when the Lord smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'”. (Ex. 12:24-27)
There is something of a paradox when it comes to the annual celebration of the Exodus story during Pessah, or Passover. On one hand, we are supposed to not only remember how our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, but in fact actually imagine ourselves, as having been liberated from slavery under Pharaoh. Yet on the other hand, the Seder, the celebratory meal, is a feast meant to be as lavish as one might afford:
Even the poorest of Jews should eat while reclining; and not be given less than four cups of wine… (Mishnah Pessahim 10:1)
For me then, this is a quintessential “Jewish” moment, the nexus of two seemingly competing values – appreciating what you have while remembering from whence you have come. I find this idea beautifully expressed in this exquisite piece from the Gross Family Collection:
Only a wealthy family could afford to own such a finely crafted sliver plate. And the Passover holiday would be just the time for that family to put their wealth into perspective while remembering that not always were things to good. But that is only one side of this moment. Perhaps more importantly, this is the moment in which those who are “wealthy” with full rights and freedoms, must remember to “do their first works over” and be sure not to oppress the other.
By the way, tf the image above seems vaguely familiar, that’s because the source from which it was copied, a well-known Haggadah published in Amsterdam in 1695, was posted here a few weeks ago:
For more about the fascinating history of this particular scene, it’s source (Matthäus Merian) and it’s different uses (the Exodus from Egypt, Jacob and his sons leaving Canaan and/or arriving in Goshen), go to my post about Parshat Vayigash.