This year, the American Jewish community celebrates Pesah at an auspicious time in American history. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the tragic coda to that war, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Last month, March 4, was the anniversary of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural during which he delivered what might be the most spiritual message in American statesmanship, perhaps second only to his own Gettysburg Address. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later, April 11, Lincoln delivered his last public address from a balcony at the White House. In that speech, he built upon the Emancipation Proclamation and for the first time in a public setting made the case for the right to vote for African Americans. In the crowd was one John Wilkes Booth who told his companion: “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three nights later Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York compiled a beautiful Seder Supplement that connects the retelling of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom to the American story. The power and poetry of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural rests in his acknowledgment of both sides of the conflict. Another leader might have seized the opportunity for triumphalist chest thumping. Not Lincoln. His words set a tone of humility, compassion and forgiveness.
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Lincoln concludes his address with the stirring words:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
We can only wonder how Lincoln would have governed through the period of Reconstruction. If these words and his prior deeds are any indication, he would have shunned vindictiveness and corruption that plagued his party after the war that paved the way for the unraveling of Reconstruction and decades of Jim Crow governance throughout the South.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, coming so close as it did to his death, serves as a kind of ethical will to the nation, a moral call for healing and unity. What Lincoln challenged our nation to do 150 years ago, we must do for ourselves in our own families.
When we began Pesah, we encountered in the Haggadah the account of the four children, one who is wise, one who is contrary, one who is simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. On the first day of Pesah I suggested that the four children as a group express metaphorically that all kinds of people are welcome at the seder table. Each person is an heir to our received tradition, and each person is a link to coming generations. Moreover, everyone is at the table. With all of the family strife and mishegas that they endure, they are sitting together having a conversation.
On this last day of Pesah, as the holiday lingers for a few more hours, we are called to reflect on the meaning of the holiday and how we can apply it to the rest of the year. As we observe Yizkor, I’d like to suggest that we honor the memory of our departed loved ones and reflect on the feelings of hurt, anger and resentment that enslave us and wield power over us. This Festival of Freedom should be a time of release in which we bind up our families’ wounds. At a vulnerable time such as Yizkor, we recognize that we are all widows and orphans to some extent, and we need one another. Just as there are four children in the Haggadah, there are also four statements that we should express to those close to us: “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you.” Saying these phrases with specific examples of each to people close to us, particularly where there has been rupture, can foster meaningful healing.
Ideally, we express these sentiments when we still have time to enjoy and strengthen a healed relationship. Sometimes, we don’t have an opportunity to do so until a dear one is close to death, but we can still bring about healing. What if a death occurs before we have the chance or before we muster the courage to humble ourselves in this manner? We can still find creative ways to bring about closure–perhaps visiting the grave, writing in a journal or speaking to a photograph of the deceased. The words “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you” have the power to break the shackles of that which enslaves us.
As Jews, we imagine that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt who went forth to freedom. As Americans, we take stock that our nation was built on the foundation of freedom but sullied by the legacy of slavery and that it took the courageous leadership of Lincoln to steer our nation towards the values for which it stands. As individuals, let’s take from the best of our Jewish and American ethos. To paraphrase Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, we pray that our loved ones whom we recall today at Yizkor shall not have died in vain. Rather, each one of us will enjoy a new birth of freedom and that our Jewish values of repentance, compassion and kindness will not perish from the earth.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.