By Ellen Clegg
Last summer, I flew back home to Minneapolis, the first visit after two years of masks, isolation, and no shortage of sorrow. I drove out to East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, now known to the world as George Floyd Square. A hush hung over the intersection. It seemed like a complicated quiet, one that enveloped the visitors who milled around in the humid air drifting in from the Mississippi River. It was the quiet of grief and contemplation, of reverence and rage.
There were a multitude of stories in the vivid murals and urgent manifestos tacked up outside Cup Foods, where Floyd, a Black Minnesotan, was murdered under the knee of a white Minneapolis Police Department officer. Stories about the lives and aims of the people who took to the streets to demand justice, or who gathered in the public square and in private spaces to begin wrenching but long-overdue conversations about power, inequity, and racism – and about personal responsibility and atonement.
That visit is still on my mind as the pandemic begins to lift, at least for now, and I’m making plans with my wife and sons for our first in-person Passover Seder after two years breaking matzoh in a Zoom square. I’m a Jew by choice and have always been awed by the simple universality of Passover, when Jews all over the world sit down to eat on the same night to recount the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. It is a quintessential story, about faith and perseverance, about a leap across a reedy sea into a future that is still to be shaped.
This timeless liberation narrative is also a story of becoming. It marks the moment when the power dynamics shift between the authoritarian Egyptian masters and the Israelites held in bondage. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes in his book, “Covenant & Conversation,” Exodus is in fact a double story: one about miracles, certainly, but also one about the demands that every social covenant makes of its citizens. According to Rabbi Sacks, Moses was telling the Israelites that “freedom is more than a moment of political triumph. It is a constant endeavor, throughout the ages, to teach those who come after us the battles our ancestors fought and why, so that my freedom is never sacrificed to yours, or purchased at the cost of someone else’s.”
Some 23 years ago, I stood on the bimah at Temple Israel in Boston and accepted the Torah scroll into my arms. It was heavier than I ever imagined it would be, in all sorts of ways. That day was the culmination of a nine-month process of study, reflection, immersion in the mikvah, and a plunge into a new community as I endeavored to understand what it means to be Jewish. Raised as an atheist, I was reaching for something beyond the quotidian world, and chose to cast my lot with Temple Israel because of its welcoming stance toward same-sex couples and because of the culture that suffuses the congregation – a culture that is focused on what the prophetic call to pursue justice means in modernity.
So many years later, I’m gratefully embedded in that community: We celebrated our son’s bar mitzvah, our wedding, and found succor during passages of grief. We also are deep into an effort to make sure our community is welcoming, inclusive, and open to all. The Reform movement calls this process REDI: Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. As our senior rabbi, Elaine Zecher, noted recently: “It is all of us and each of us who can choose redemptive behaviors and attitudes.”
Passover is a reminder of the importance of the journey, the trek out of a narrow and benighted place toward redemption. While the Torah continues to be heavier than I ever imagined, the Bronze Age teachings in Exodus have plenty of flex for the future. They serve as a framework for 21st century questions about justice, about whose stories get told and whose are yet to be heard. As Rabbi Sacks writes: “A people sustain freedom by their own efforts.” It’s a group effort, sustained by community, and it can push us forward into a more just future if we let it.
Ellen Clegg is a former editorial page editor for the Boston Globe. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org