The immigrants' "Passover" in America
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
Through this spring, "Passover" has been happening in the streets of America.
It has been coming not from a written book, but from the hearts and minds and legs and prayers of a people. It is happening in Spanish and "Spanglish" more than in Hebrew.
Two million people went into the streets against a Congressional Pharaoh (the House of Representatives) that was saying "Let us make it a criminal act, a felony to be punished with prison at 'hard labor,' to live in the United States without a document. Let us make it a felony to feed or heal or educate or comfort these criminals.
"Let us build a wall, with guns to kill anyone who dares to cross -- just as the ancient Pharaoh ordered the murder of the boy-children of this folk whose name, "Hebrews," meant "the ones who cross over"; the wetbacks.
Even in the much more decent bill passed by the Senate, many provisions strip immigrants of their human rights. And as Congress tries to meld the House and Senate bills together, there is great danger that the more hostile, more violent path will triumph. That as Pharaoh's chariots marched into the Red Sea, so the Rio Grande will be militarized today.
Read Exodus 1: 9-10: "Now Pharaoh said: "Here, this people is many-more and mighty-numerous. Come now, let us use our wits against it, lest it become even many-more!" So they made them subservient with crushing-labor; they embittered their lives with hard servitude."
Why did all this rising of a protest movement happen in the spring? For the same reason that the ancient rabbis taught that the lunar Jewish calendar must be constantly adjusted so as to keep Passover in the spring. Because just as the flowers rise up against winter in the springtime, so the People rise up against Pharaoh in springtime.
Because as lambs are born and barley sprouts in the springtime, so new peoples are born and freedom sprouts new in the springtime.
Two thousand years ago, the loose network of "Jews Against the Empire" gathered in Rome's regional sub-capital, Jerusalem, led by a radical rabbi from Galilee, to demonstrate against the oppressive Roman regime. They came during Passover; when else would you demonstrate to overthrow an Empire? They marched, according to what became Christian tradition, waving palm branches. Now that day is commemorated on what Christians call "Palm Sunday," and echoes of Passover survive as well in memories of the Last Supper -- evidently a Passover Seder.
And for all the same reasons, millions came marching in the streets for this same holy time, these weeks of spring. The May Day that began as the "pagan" celebration of the spring uprising of life-energy and then in America, in the 1880s, became the day of massive strikes for the eight-hour day, an old-new form of liberation, again took on its double "Pesachdik" meaning when immigrants chose that day to boycott work and purchasing.
Just as the Roman imperial authorities tried to smash the uprising energies by torturing and killing its leaders two thousand years ago, so the Empire can be expected to try to repress this energy today. (It has already justified using torture against even people later found to be utterly guiltless.)
It was not only Jesus who was tortured to death; on Yom Kippur, Jews recite the stories of ten other great rabbis who were tortured to death for refusing to obey the Roman edicts.
The real answer to the immigration puzzle is certainly not cruelty: imprisoning the hopeful, shooting at the desperate, breaking up families. It must include an invitation to become US citizens.
But even more basically, it demands addressing the question of poverty and despair BOTH in the US and in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean. It means taking the steps to help grass-roots organizers -- labor unionists, farmers, teachers, clergyfolk, environmentalists, often women - to lift the wages and working conditions below the Rio Grande, as well in the US.
To make "Free Trade Agreements" into Fair Trade Agreements, wiping out sweatshops and sweated fields on both sides of the river.
To insist that on both banks of the river, workers not only be paid a living wage but work for "livable hours" -- decent working hours that allow for freeing the time that a free people needs if it is to learn, sing, govern itself, pray, breathe.
Why? Because the only long-term way to stabilize immigration to the US is to assist the relevant countries to become culturally and economically inviting and successful societies. Without that, the pressure for legal and illegal immigration to the US will keep increasing. Under such a strain, the present uneasy semi-hostile relationship between many labor unionists and the Hispanic community, between many African-American workers and the Hispanic community, is liable to worsen as decent jobs with decent pay and hours get scarcer.
The ancient Israelites turned the tight spot and narrow space of ancient Egypt into a narrow but fruitful birth canal that brought them into open space and time. Once they had broken the waters of the Red Sea, they were able as their first collective act to make the Sabbath -- to live in broad spaces and open-ended time, with elbow room to create, to explore, to hear God's Word, to make a new society.
And they felt the need to write into their own laws the obligation to love the foreigner, deal equitably with foreigners – because they knew the heart of the foreigner, having been foreigners in the Land of Narrowness, Mitzrayyim, Egypt. And they added -- May no leader lead us to become ourselves Mitzrayyim, a narrow-minded land that harbors hatred of the stranger.
So may it be with us.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs The Shalom Center and has written many books on spiritual renewal and public policy, including Godwrestling - Round 2.