I was strolling through The Art Institute of Chicago when I came across a painting from John Philip Simpson, an English artist, titled "The Captive Slave."
Simpson painted it in 1827, and it portrays a black man wearing an orange shirt with shackles around his wrists. The man's face is turned heavenward as if he was praying for deliverance, and it appears there are tears welling up in his eyes.
This painting was considered controversial at the time because of the national debate in England concerning the moral and political issues of slavery. Ultimately the British Parliament, six years later, would abolish slavery. Ira Aldridge, a freeman born in New York to a lay preacher, posed for this painting. He later became a famous actor on the British stage.
This painting might have caught my attention because Passover is this week. The way Simpson captured the pathos and pain of this man touched me as I contemplated the history of my own people who also yearned for freedom.
Thirty-five years earlier, in 1792, a French painter named Philippe Jacques-Loutherbourg created a painting, "The Destruction of Pharaoh's Army," of Moses and his people standing at the shores of the Sea of Reeds and watching the ocean waters drown Pharaoh's army.
Moses, who is depicted with flaming red hair, stands upon the rocks with his staff pointing toward heaven. He looks defiantly down upon the soldiers in the water. His followers are huddled around him between the rocks, some looking on in astonishment at the miraculous power he invoked from God and others looking upward to the heavens, still others turning their eyes in relief and thanksgiving toward Moses himself.
In both pieces of art I could behold the entire Passover narrative, which is the story that begins in servitude and concludes with the miraculous, whereby God sets the Israelites free and destroys Pharaoh's army in the Sea of Reeds.
The power of art is that it tells a story. The painting can convey an emotional feeling that can take us back to the time the painter tries to re-create for us. These painters evoke empathy and stir our memories.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Judaic law forbid the creation of graven images. This prevented Jewish artists from painting. There is, however, a tradition of Haggadot, or the books we read at the Passover dinner service. There is a great history of beautiful art in illuminated manuscripts in these holy books over the centuries depicting Moses and the Israelites.
Whether we are viewing visual art or we are reading the text of the story itself, we transcend time and space to remember the past. The singing of traditional songs recounting our slavery and redemption or performing the rituals takes us through that historic experience of leaving Egypt -- and the near catastrophe of being overrun by Pharaoh's chariots bent on seeking revenge for the final plague against the Egyptian first born. This is the core of how Jews celebrate Passover.
If we have done our spiritual work right, we can transport ourselves to that place and time in ancient Egypt as if we were eyewitnesses to our own liberation. That is the spiritual moment we are aiming for in observing Passover.
Empathizing with a portrait of a 19th century slave in chains or an 18th century painting of Moses at the Sea of Reeds helps connect us to the larger Passover message, which is that we strive to self-identify with history and not simply sit down to dinner and eat the food of the Passover Seder meal.
The fact that non-Jewish painters depicted themes that taught the history of the Exodus or evoked the cruelty of contemporary slavery in 19th century England demonstrates that the holy day of Passover resonates in the hearts and minds of Christians as well as Jews.
Slavery was, and is today, an abhorrent institution. Passover commemorates a national and spiritual rebellion against Egypt for enslaving the Israelites for more than 400 years. The rituals in the Passover service or Seder re-create those moments and help us remember the outstretched hand of God as the deliverer.
This coming week, Jewish families and friends will read from the Haggadah and eat the traditional foods.
Even though Passover is exclusively a Jewish holy day, it does possess a universal theme of freedom for humanity, which inspired writers and painters in history up through today. This ethos to identify with the slave comes from God's command to Israel to remember that "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." This lesson is ingrained in the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people and the faith in God to give us the Torah at Mount Sinai as the great theophany, which redeemed us from Egyptian bondage.
The revelation of the laws and the teachings of Torah, as well as the rest of the Bible, are shaped by this time-honored story as the central narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures. The inspiration of the painters preserved the universal feeling of the cruelty of slavery as well as the experience of divine retribution against their Egyptian taskmasters.
These artists contributed to a deeper understanding in western civilization on why the Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt was truly a universal event to teach us that no people should be enslaved to another and that one should never give up on God to lead us from servitude to freedom.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.