preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, April 2008

A selection from this sermon was included in Krista Hyde’s master’s thesis, and liturgical resource, The Heaven and Earth Haggadah.

Haggadah I

Today is the first day of Passover. Passover is a Jewish spring holiday dedicated to the telling and retelling of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. The story of Passover is the story of the universal longing for redemption and freedom. The Passover story is one of the key narratives of the Jewish faith and it has inspired people who have struggled for freedom for thousands of years. Through hard times and epochs of oppression it has served as a reminder that freedom from wicked governments and tyrants has, in the end, always been gained. Though it a Jewish story and a Jewish religious celebration the Passover story has been widely adopted by other religious communities. It has much to teach us regardless of our religious identity.

We are honoring the Passover holiday this morning for a couple of reason. This congregation has a large number of members and friends who come from Jewish ethnic and religious backgrounds. It seems right that if we honor the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas that we mark some of the major Jewish holidays as well. While Unitarian Universalism stems from two heretical Christian traditions–the Unitarians who believed in the humanity of Jesus and the Universalists who believed that God did not punish God’s creations with everlasting torment after death–as a movement we have a long history of dialogue and interchange with Judaism. This tradition stretches back until at least the mid-nineteenth century in the United States and much earlier in Europe. Michael Servetus, a Spanish anti-trinitarian theologian in the early sixteenth century and one of our religious forbearers, rejected the divinity of Jesus in part because he thought that the trinitarianism of Christians separated them from their Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

Passover is probably my favorite holiday. It is a holiday that has to do with collective liberation and the struggle for justice, two topics that are very close to my heart. As many of you know I come from a mixed marriage. My father is Jewish and my mother was raised Protestant. As a child I grew up observing both Christian and Jewish holidays. Of those Passover was one of the most important. Every year we would gather for at least one Seder supper with family and friends. A Seder, for those that do not know, is an evening service performed as part of meal in which the Passover story is retold. The word Seder means order and the Seder service is laid out in a text called a Haggadah which means telling. Sometimes we would host these and sometimes we would go to another family’s house. Where we went and who we were with would determine the content of the Seder supper. Some years we would have a fairly traditional service. Other years my family would use Arthur Waskow’s “Freedom Seder,” a Haggadah written for non-traditional Jews involved in the social justice movement.

No matter which Haggadah we used for the Seder several elements of were always the same. There was a Seder plate with symbolic foods representing different parts of the Passover story. There were the four questions, which we heard earlier in our story this morning. There was matzoh and four glasses of wine. Each element of the service is meant to remind its participants of part of the Passover story. It is one of the oldest stories in the Bible. It can be found in the book of Exodus. It is story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And as such it is the story of the beginning of the Western religious traditions: Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism. Chronological Exodus is the second book in the Bible. It comes after Genesis. Genesis can be understood as the pre-history of the Jewish people. Exodus is the beginning of history. Some of the events that it references appear to have had actual historical antecedents.

The Passover story begins after the tribe of Israel has come to live in Egypt. As a community the tribe had moved from the land of Canaan to Egypt because their lands had suffered from drought. In exchange for free labor one of the Pharaoh’s had let them settle in Egypt. The people of Israel prospered but in time the old Pharaoh died and a new Pharaoh came to power. The new Pharaoh did not recognize the agreement between the people of Israel and his predecessor. He enslaved the people and he began to grow afraid of them. Eventually he became so afraid of the people of Israel that he ordered the midwives who served them to kill all of the tribe’s boys at birth. This, he thought, would control their population and force them to assimilate into the Egyptian culture.

The midwives agreed to do this. But secretly they disobeyed. When a boy child was born they let him live. Pharaoh became wise and issued an edict to all of his people, so that he could circumvent the midwives, that all of the boys that were born were to be drown in the river Nile.

At this time a woman and man had a baby son. When the child was three months old they realized that they could hide him no longer. So the woman placed him in a basket and put him in the banks of the Nile amid the reeds. Later that day Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe. She heard the baby crying in the reeds. She rescued him, named him Moses and raised him as her own son.

Moses grew up to be a fine young man. One day he went out to observe the labors of the people of Israel. He saw a Egyptian overseer beating one of the laborers and became so angry he struck the overseer. Moses hit the overseer so hard that he killed him. Fearing for his own life Moses fled Egypt for the neighboring land of Midian.

In Midian, Moses married Zipporah and becomes a shepherd working with his father-in-law Jethro. He lived there for many years. He and his wife had a son. Pharaoh died and another man became Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh was even crueler than the old one. The people of Israel suffered under his bondage. They cried out to God for help.

One day Moses was out in the wilderness tending a flock of goats. As he was walking about he came across a bush that was aflame. Even as the bush burned it was not consumed by the fire. Instead the fire seemed not to touch the leaves or the sticks. Greatly perplexed by such a strange sight Moses approached the bush. When he came near it a voice rose out of the bush. The voice called “Moses! Moses!” It was God. God was speaking from the bush. God commanded Moses to return to Egypt and liberate his people. As a sign God gave Moses a staff that could turn into a snake.

Moses gathered up his family and began a journey back to Egypt. On the way they encountered his brother Aaron. When they returned to Egypt Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to demand freedom for their people. Pharaoh refused. They told Pharaoh that if he refused again God would reign down plagues upon the Egyptians. Pharaoh still refused so God turned the river Nile into blood and killed all of the river’s fish. Moses and Aaron went back to Pharaoh and demanded freedom for the people of Israel again. Again Pharaoh refused. This time God sent a plague of frogs. After the plague Moses and Aaron went back to Pharaoh to ask for freedom for their people a third time. A third time Pharaoh refused them. God sent another plague, a plague of lice. This went on for sometime. In all Moses and Aaron asked Pharaoh for freedom ten times. Each time he refused and each time God sent another plague to the Egyptians.

The final plague that God sent to Egypt was the slaying of the first born. God killed all of the first born males of the Egyptians, from the cows in the field to Pharaoh’s own son. God spared the first born of the tribe of Israel. He knew who they were because the members of the tribe had marked their houses with the blood of lambs. When the angel of death came to a household and saw lamb’s blood on its doorpost the angel knew that family was to be spared and passed over that house. This is where the word Passover comes from.

After the plague Pharaoh woke up to discover what had happened. He summoned Moses and Aaron and told them that they and their people should leave Egypt immediately. Moses and Aaron returned to their tribe and everyone made such a haste to flee that they did not even have enough time to finish letting their bread rise. They baked the bread unleavened, that is without letting it rise, which is where we get matzoh.

Not long after the tribe of Israel fled Egypt Pharaoh began to regret letting his slaves go. He gathered up his army and they set out to chase the tribe. They chased them all the way to Sea of Reeds. Thinking they were cornered the people of Israel thought that they were doomed. God, however, gave Moses the power to part the Sea of Reeds. The water rose up on two sides and a stretch of dry land appeared in the middle. The tribe was able to run across the dry land in the middle of sea. Pharaoh and his army tried to pursue but as soon as the tribe had crossed safely to the other side the water came rushing back and they were drowned. The people of Israel had escaped from slavery in Egypt and were now free.

During the Passover Seder one of the ways that gratitude is expressed for liberation from Egypt is through the prayer of Dayenu, which means loosely in Hebrew “it would have been enough for us.” I invite you now to say a modern variation of this prayer with me.

Haggadah II

The Passover story and the Passover Seder have been adapted widely. When African Americans struggled for freedom against slavery and Jim Crow they took heart from the story. They saw their own story mirrored in the story of the tribe of Israel. They hoped that just as God had saved the tribe of Israel from slavery God would save them from a similar fate. They thought of the plantations as Egypt and prayed that someone would come and lead them to freedom.

One of the interesting things about the Passover Seder is just how many variations of it there are. One scholarly text about the service I read said that in the 19th century a Rabbinical school had managed to collect about 2,000 different versions of the service. Since then the number has only grown as each Jewish community has adapted the service for their own needs. The heart of the service, the Passover story, is always the same as is the root impulse that lies within. Each variation reminds its readers that the longing for liberation from oppression is universal. Each version challenges people to remember that God and religion should stand upon the side of the oppressed.

In contemporary times a number of unorthodox versions of the Haggadah have been compiled. One of the most famous of these Haggadoth is Arthur Waskow’s “Freedom Seder.” Waskow is now a Rabbi in the Jewish Renewal tradition. He was inspired to write the “Freedom Seder” when he was civil rights worker in Washington, DC. The year was 1968 and Martin King had just been assassinated. DC, like a lot of other cities, was in a state of turmoil. Elements of the U.S. Army occupied the streets. As he walked through the streets Waskow thought to himself: “This is Pharaoh’s army, and I am walking home to do the Seder.” That night as he and his friends performed the Seder they “noticed the passage that says, ‘In every generation, one rises up to become an oppressor”; the passage that says, ‘In every generation, every human being is obligated to say, we ourselves, not our forebears only, go from slavery to freedom.'”

Over the next several months Waskow compiled a Seder born out of both the Jewish tradition and the contemporary civil rights struggle. He included stories of the modern Jewish struggle against the Nazis and African American spirituals as well as Yiddish and Hebrew poems and songs. A part of the Seder is dedicated to retelling the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. Other parts celebrate the bravery of many who perished struggling for freedom for their people, whether African American, white, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Waskow’s point was that the Passover story was for everyone and that in each generation we are called to struggle for justice. As his Haggadah reminds us: “In every generation, Pharaoh. In every generation, Freedom.”

Waskow’s Haggadah is but one of many contemporary ones. Others have come from a more feminist perspective and have lifted up the stories of the women in the Passover narrative. Reading Exodus it is very clear that women are important to the tribe of Israel’s liberation. Without the midwives’ disobedience Moses would have been killed at birth. Without Pharaoh’s daughter’s kindness Moses would not have survived his infancy. Without the support of his wife and her family Moses would not have been able to survive once he fled Egypt and return to liberate his people.

One of the women such Haggadah’s especially honor is Miriam. Miriam was Moses’s older sister. She had hidden amid the reeds when Moses was placed on the river bank and watched over her brother until he was recused by Pharaoh’s daughter. In the book of Exodus we find her singing a song after Pharaoh and his army drowned. Some scholars think that her song may be one of the oldest texts in the Bible. Here is a modern version of it by the poet Muriel Rukeyser.


As part of the Passover Seder a cup of wine is set out for the prophet Elijah. Towards the end of the service the front door is opened so Elijah knows he is welcome to come to the meal if he desires. Elijah’s return is supposed to herald the advent of the Messiah. The Messiah is the prophet of God who will come to redeem the world and make things whole again. There are many different stories about Messiah. Some people say that Messiah comes in every generation. Others believe that Messiah will come at the end of time. Christians believe that Jesus was Messiah. Some Rabbis teach that we all have the potential to become Messiah and that each child that is born might be Messiah.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors always used to insist that we leave the door to our classroom slightly open for Elijah. My professor did this because one never knew when Messiah might be made know to the world. He wanted to make sure that Elijah knew he was welcome at any time.

The idea was not so much that he believed that God was actually going to send the Messiah any minute. Rather it was that the struggle for justice goes ever onward. Leaving the door slightly ajar served as a reminder that no matter how stimulating our theological conversation was there was a world out there in need of healing.

This to me is the heart of the Passover story. Liberation, freedom and healing have been found in the past. They are needed in the present and will be needed again in the future. The Passover story helps us to remember that freedom, healing and liberation are a human possibility in this day and in the days to come. As long as we are alive we can yearn for them. This is why I like Waskow’s adaption of Dayenu so much. It reminds us that no matter what our accomplishments are we can always struggle more to make the world a better place and bringing healing to those who need it.

May it be so and Amein.

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