July 15, 2020

Juneteenth – One Month Later

Robert Lichtman Chief Jewish Learning Officer

I’m not gonna lie. I was ignorant about Juneteenth until last month. Amidst the grief and anger surrounding the murder of George Floyd and so many others, I was encouraged to learn about this celebratory day, a remembrance of what was and a recommitment to work towards what could be.

As I heard more about how the holiday was created and celebrated, I could not help but relate the elements of this special day to our Passover experience.

Juneteenth – The abolition of slavery was proclaimed in 1863. But it took more than two years (until June 19, “Juneteenth” 1865) and the spilling of much blood before all now-free Black Americans experienced liberation.

Passover – Moses proclaimed God’s promise of deliverance from slavery to the Jews, but it took nearly a year and the spilling of much blood before the now-free Jewish people experienced liberation.

Juneteenth is also called Freedom Day. Passover is also called z’man chayrutaynu

Juneteenth – Red is the official color, so a festive menu might include juicy, barbecued meat paired with red soda water. Red signifies the spilled blood of the enslaved.

Passover – The Pascal sacrifice was a great family barbecue, and red wine is preferred for our seder to commemorate the blood of the enslaved.

Juneteenth – A significant aspect of the day is the retelling of family and community history by the elders to younger generations so that memories stay fresh. This is not history. This is their story.

Passover – The centerpiece of the seder is “Magid,” retelling the story of the Exodus. This is not history. This is our story. “It is incumbent upon every person in every generation to feel as if s/he experienced the Exodus from Egypt.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg reminds us (The Jewish Way, 1988) that throughout history those who were persecuted by poverty, politics, or power – most of the human population at any given time – believed that their miserable condition was pre-destined and unchangeable. It took the miraculous epic of the Exodus to shake loose the imaginations of oppressed people everywhere and for all time to gain the understanding and to nurture the hope that liberation is attainable.

The same Torah that places us in a relationship with God – that chronicles our story, our struggle, and our freedom – admonishes us to use our divinely gifted freedom to pursue justice. This core Jewish principle should be sufficient to stir our hearts to confront racial injustice, the remnants of slavery that encumber Black people still. But inasmuch as both our Peoples experienced slavery and exult similarly in liberation, we share not only the pangs of servitude but the passion for salvation. So, it is incumbent upon every person in every generation to feel as if they experienced racial injustice and to use our unique alignment with our Black neighbors to sustain the Jewish community’s ardent commitment towards this end.

So inborn is the Jewish desire to hold fast to freedom that when God established Passover as an annual celebration of our liberation, those who could not participate in the Passover rituals pleaded with Moses to also have the opportunity to recall our tragic experiences and to celebrate our delicious freedom. And so accepting of this desire was God that God set another date exactly one month later as Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover, for anyone who needed to catch up with the Jewish People’s Freedom Parade.

There is no Juneteenth equivalent to Pesach Sheni. There is no “Julyteenth.” But this message for July 19 carries that spirit. We recall the Exodus not only on Passover, but the other 364 days as well. This, too, is the message of Juneteenth that reverberates a month later: Juneteenth is a day to celebrate, but only one day along with the other 364 for all of us to strive for justice.