Do We Need a Pharaoh
The addition of a month in this Hebrew leap year gave me a gift I have long desired. With Passover occurring almost a month after Easter, my friends in the Christian clergy were not consumed with their own observances when it came time for seder. On the second night of Pesach, three African American pastors, three rabbis and a chazzan and their respective families sat around the table and discussed the lessons of the Exodus from Egypt all night until my wife said, "It is time to recite the evening's 'my-isn't-this-delicious.'" Among the matters we discussed is an essential question of both Jewish and Black life - do we need a Pharaoh? My friend Jeffrey Haggray of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church suggested two very provocative answers. First, as context, he suggested that whether or not we "need" Pharaohs, history continuously provides them. To that end, it is in our interests to know how to deal with the Pharaoh of every generation. His second answer was both brilliant and troubling. The value of Pharaoh, he contended, was the face he put on evil. It is very easy, he suggested, to talk about evil in the abstract and to intellectualize the concept to the point that it has no reality. However, when someone acts upon the evil, giving it voice and legs, we can appreciate its devastating impact on our world and the people living in it. I asked him about the danger of demonization - of associating the evil so thoroughly with the person that we lose his humanity, and therefore his chance for redemption. To our mutual frustration, the hour was late and we had to agree that the line was a thin and dangerous one. In retrospect, Jeff's answer was (as it should have been) very Christian. The personification of pure evil is merely the other side of the personification of pure good. But in thinking about it, I have come to realize that there is validity to his observation even from within the Jewish experience. After all, it is not just Pharaoh who is locked into his recalcitrant ways in our history. We count Amalek, Haman, Antiochus, Torquemada and Hitler among the individuals who oppressed us and set a standard which forever links their names with the evil they accomplished. Every generation may throw its heroes up the pop charts, as Paul Simon says, but it seems that we need our role models of evil as well as a cautionary tale about the depths to which we can sink. But as Jews, we have no paradigm of human goodness in contrast. The heroes of our tradition are all flawed, offering their wives to other men, committing murder or adultery, deceiving their families, hiding their relationship with God. Perhaps, the presence of Pharaoh in each generation is not just to put a face on the evil "out there," but to make clear that the face could be our own. We can rise above the inevitable flaws of being human or be defined by them.
Do Write in God's Eyes
Each fall we publish a booklet to supplement High Holy Day services and each spring I send out the call for contributions to that volume. Prose and poetry are welcome, and should relate to one or more of the themes of the Days of Awe, including, but not limited to · repentance and forgiveness · relationship with God and Jewish community · remembrances of past holidays · moments of personal insight · experiences with ritual observance · awakening of conscience Our booklet has become very popular, and with good reason. The quality of and variety of offerings have touched the hearts of congregants and distant correspondents alike. Submissions may be edited for length - please try to limit any one piece to one side of a sheet of paper, double spaced (including free-structured poetry). The cost of preparing and publishing this booklet is included in our budget. However, one way to help us keep costs down is to contribute to its production. Any contribution will be acknowledged in the booklet itself (only); should you wish to underwrite the project or a large portion of it, please contact me directly. Ours is a great privilege to share our thoughts and teachings with each other and intermingle them with ancient words of devotion. I thank you in advance for helping to make my High Holy Days and those of the other members of our congregational family so much more meaningful.