By C. K. LeDaniel
“Go Down, Moses” is commonly known as a “Negro Spiritual”, although it may have earlier origins as a rallying song for escaped slaves who joined Union forces in the Civil War. It is also reported to be a code song for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad out of Maryland. If you are familiar with this song, you may know more about Passover than you think you do. Here are some of the lyrics:
When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go
Oppress'd so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go
This song is the story of Passover, which is told annually as part of a ritualized holiday celebration. It is a story of liberation from slavery and retelling it on two consecutive nights every year is part of the Jewish tradition of never forgetting—and thereby never repeating.
It also is a story of righteous women, like ourselves! The Talmud says that, “In the spirit of the righteous women our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” Who were these women? There were two midwives, Shifra and Puah, who were commanded by the Pharaoh to kill all male sons born to Jewish women. But the midwives defied the Pharaoh, claiming Jewish women delivered too quickly for them to attend the births. The civil disobedience of Shifra and Puah allowed for Moses to be born. Moses’s mother, Yocheved, in an effort to save his life, sent him down the river in a basket, entrusting him to God. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, found the baby Moses and rescued him. His sister, Miriam, who was waiting in the reeds by the river, persuaded Batya to allow her mother to nurse and raise him in the palace, without Batya ever knowing of Yocheved’s true identity. Thus these five women allowed for Moses to be born, to grow, and ultimately, to lead his people to freedom.
Another Jewish tradition is asking questions and engaging in discussion around the story of Passover. As my own consciousness has been increasingly awakened to the modern day slavery that is mass incarceration and how it impacts our Black sons, I have brought this issue to our Seder table. What is mass incarceration? Mass incarceration is a for profit prison industrial complex that has overwhelmingly targeted Black men. It is racial profiling by law enforcement officers inside and outside of our schools. It is so called “law and order” policies systematically designed to target and harshly sentence our sons. It is a legal system with biased District Attorneys protected from bias litigation. It is the pressure on innocent people without proper representation to enter into plea deals to avoid draconian mandatory sentences. It is cash bail that forces innocent poor people to languish in prison and be derailed from their educations and careers and families. It is correctional supervision that denies civil rights. It is free, or virtually free, prison labor. It is the 13th amendment, which states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime...shall exist within the United States.” If we are to say never again at my family Seder, we must say it for all of us.
Many people share at their Seders the words of Rabbi Hillel, an important Jewish leader from 2000 years ago: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
My fellow mom, Crys Baldwin—one of MOBB United's passionate volunteers—has been known to use a paraphrase of this quote to rally us to action. Passover is a fitting time to remind us all of why we righteous women are here: to help lead our sons out of the current iteration of slavery, because if not us, then who, and if not now, when