I can still remember as a child my parents taking me to the Civil War battle ground of Gettysburg, Pa. I ran up and down the battlefield, wearing my Yankee hat and brandishing my plastic gray sword, imagining myself as a Union soldier pretending to defeat the Southern Confederates. Who would have imagined that one day I would be serving a wonderful congregation as a rabbi in the great state of South Carolina?
Tuesday commemorated the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War and the firing on Ft. Sumter in Charleston. In that war, more than 620,000 soldiers died -- a record death toll for any other war fought by Americans.
We all know the ongoing issues that surround the Civil War history and Southern culture. Southerners on all sides of the political spectrum have their own narratives about the events and the best way to preserve history. People have told me members of their family still are fighting the battle in their hearts and minds despite the huge changes in America. Those debates will continue for a long time to come.
How can all sides come together and learn lessons to make us a better nation? There are military cemeteries for Union and Confederate soldiers. Can Southerners loyal to the cause of the Confederacy pay tribute to the Union soldiers who fought bravely? Can Union advocates show respect to the Confederate's war dead?
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Passover begins Tuesday and there is a story told in the narrative the Jewish people recite at their special Seder, or Passover meal. The 2,000-year-old story, found in the pages of the Talmud, says that when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds and watched the pursuing Egyptian army drown in the water, they broke out into jubilation. Suddenly God rebukes his people by saying, "These Egyptian soldiers are also my people, and you cry out in joy?"
That story teaches a lesson about Passover; to distinguish between rejoicing at God's salvation versus celebrating the destruction of human life. It is a nuanced distinction, but one that can give us a humbled perspective about war.
It would be a great moment of religious and spiritual inspiration if we could say prayers for the dead who gave their lives for the causes they believed in and dedicate ourselves to a future where hatred and old prejudices die on the battlefield. Will the day come when the descendants of Union and Confederate soldiers can embrace each other -- not only to dignify the memory of the past, but to strengthen our future?
Passover is about remembering that Jews were once slaves. Through the mighty hand of God deliverance came, freeing the Jews from servitude to Pharaoh. Memory is a great teacher if we let it instruct us how to be better and wiser for the future. Preserving the anger and the animosity of the past only moves us backward. Freedom is about even more than political and human rights. It is about living together and sharing a future where our children will fulfill their potential. Those brave soldiers never had the opportunity to realize the years they should have had to grow families and achieve their dreams. Can we bring a sense of humility to our commemoration of this historic day?
In the rites of Passover, Jewish people dip parsley into salted water to remember the tears of slavery. Tears certainly filled the hearts and souls of Egyptian parents on Passover when their first-borns died because of Pharaoh's stubborn pride. At the end of the day, the victims on all sides lay side-by-side as God's hand unfolded a new future. One hopes that people will learn from the Passover story in the Book of Exodus that we must one day move beyond wars to resolve our problems.