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.