Pesach sure gives slavery a bad rap. After all, the seder’s dominant theme is that of the Israelites moving away from slavery and toward a life of freedom. And the rituals of the night serve to accentuate the motif of freedom: the leaning as free men would do, the four cups of wine (the drink of the wealthy and privileged), the custom to decorate the seder table with one’s finest vessels, the lavish meal and the obligation to see oneself as having left the bondage of Egypt (Sephardim going so far as to physically reenact the exodus in the midst of their seder!). All of this and more turn the seder night into one big ole’ gratitude-fest - “Thank you L-rd for redeeming us from such a dreadful fate! Hallelujah!”
G-d forbid for myself or anyone else to dismiss or even downplay the depressive plight of the enslaved! Human history has shed its light on the evil that is slavery and the hell that marks its victims. And yet, I sometimes worry that a person could leave the seder with the wrong impression: that a life has no worth, no value or purpose unless one is free. A “Give me liberty or give me death” kind of sensibility that nips at the hearts of participants around the seder table. And that’s a shame.
For, unwittingly as it may be, such attitudes diminish the meaning of the existences of the millions upon millions of people who have lived throughout human history as enslaved peoples, many never getting close enough to even the sniff the fresh air of freedom. Not to mention the many long portions of Jewish history itself riddled with slavery or slavery-like persecution in exile! Are we to argue that those stretches of Jewish history served as mere layovers toward a brighter national future? How sad, indeed, it would be if life’s meaning could so easily be stripped away from humanity at the hands of history’s oppressors!
And yet many believe just that. People like Anthony Ray Hinton who came to believe that the powers that be could steal his life and reason-to-be away from him. He was a poor black man convicted by a jury of all white southerners of murdering two fast food managers and attempting to murder a third who thankfully survived a gunshot to the head, but sadly fingered out Hinton from a police lineup as the shooter (Hinton had actually been checked in at his job, surrounded by coworkers at the time of the attempted murder, but his ill-equipped court appointed lawyer never bothered to put his coworkers on the stand).
Hinton was enraged. And rightly so. He was an innocent man that the state wanted to kill in order to move on from these grisly crimes. There was no no physical evidence linking Hinton to the murders but a shoddy ballistics report claiming that the bullets found at the crime scenes matched Anthony’s mother’s gun (almost three decades later this report would be debunked by national ballistics experts). And now, that which was left of his life had been reduced to a long waiting game for a date with the electric chair located just forty feet from his holding cell. And what great meaning could there be in that? There were no great choices one could make on death row, no family one could grow or meaningful work to engage in. Anthony Hinton lived with these pervading thoughts for the first three years of what would become an almost thirty year stint in isolation on Alabama’s death row.
But one particularly gloomy night changed everything for the young convict. It was common at nighttime to hear sounds of crying and moaning on The Row. You learned to tune it out. But tonight was different. It was a soul piercing cry, and it went on and on and on.
Anthony recalls his thoughts from that night. Thoughts that would alter his existence for the rest of his time in lock-up.
I thought again about all the choices I didn’t have and about freedom, and then the man stopped crying and there was a silence that was louder than any noise I’d ever heard. What if this man killed himself tonight and I did nothing? Wouldn’t that be a choice?
I was on death row not by my own choice, but I had made the choice to spend the last three years thinking about killing McGregor [the state’s prosecutor] and thinking about killing myself. Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many as Lester [Anthony’s best friend from the outside] had, but I still had some choices. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.
“Hey!’ I walked up to my cell door and yelled toward the crying man. “Are you alright over there?”
These were the first words that Anthony had utterred since he had entered death row three years prior. He had been silently protesting the entirety of it all, and refused to speak to anyone but the few outsiders who came to visit him on visiting day. But now he realized his words could also be used for the good.
It turned out that that crying inmate had recently received word that his mother had passed away and Anthony’s words of care and concern opened the door for the other inmate to share his pain with another and heal in the process.
Anthony comforted the man: “I’m sorry you lost your mom, but man, you got to look at this a different way. Now you have someone in heaven who’s going to argue your case before G-d.”
And then “the most amazing thing happened. On a dark night, in what must surely be the most desolate and dehumanizing place on earth, a man laughed. A real laugh. And with that laughter, I realized that the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. And they most certainly couldn't steal my sense of humor (The Sun Does Shine, p.115-118).”
These poignant words echo the sentiments of another, earlier inmate who also escaped death. Viktor Frankl passed through four Nazi camps before he would make his way to freedom, but that didn’t stop him from finding an inner freedom whilst still in the hellish camps:
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
...in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp (Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search For Meaning, p. 66).
The lives of the imprisoned matter! It’s easy to forget that it was the meaningful choices of the still chained ancient Israelites that led to both the continuity of the Jewish people as a whole and their future redemption (not too shabby!). For the Midrash teaches that the Israelite men refused to consort with their wives once Pharoah issued his evil decree to throw the Israelite baby boys in the Nile. But the women protested, “If Pharoah were to kill the boys are you to also kill the Israelite girls?” The women would then make themselves up with all types of make-up and seduce their husbands. Thus did the women ensure the continuity of the people of israel.
The Midrash notes as well that the ancient Israelites indeed merited their future redemption because they never changed their names, language or clothing throughout their sojournings in Egypt. Our forefathers made a conscious effort to distance themselves from the licentious culture of ancient Egypt and maintain their sacred identities and heritage by standing out. It’s as if G-d were saying, “if you’re willing to stand out while living amongst this foreign nation, I’ll really make you stand out by actually taking you out!”
In the final analysis, freedom is worth shouting from the rooftops on seder night because it is our freedom that affords us more ways and more opportunities to do good, live meaningfully and serve G-d and man alike. But seders were equally made during the darker periods of our history as well. For we knew then as we know now that even in the bleakness of subjugation and oppression there is always something that we have that cannot be taken away; our internal independence, our spiritual freedom that we can tap into regardless of the circumstances that seem to hold us hostage. Freedom too, we know, is a choice.