A Seder for Freedom
After Emancipation, like everyone else on the place, Rachel pondered the meaning of freedom. The dreams that had sustained her when she was a slave—a silk dress, new books, a house of her own, money of her own—seemed foolish now. As Passover approached, she thought about freedom more than ever. She was no longer a slave in the land of Egypt. She craved the words of the Seder to tell her so.
She asked Adelaide, her former mistress, “Should we have Passover this year?”
Adelaide said sharply, “Do we need to? The children of Israel just got freed and it’s Passover every day now.”
Rachel said, “I want to do it proper. Hear the words in the Passover book.”
“Never knew you cared so much about Passover.”
Rachel quoted, “Avadim hayinu b’erez mizrayim. I’ve heard those words every year of my life. Do you think I didn’t know what they meant?”
Adelaide said to Rachel, “Do you really want to stir up everyone on the place by reminding them of the story of getting free from Egypt?”
Rachel said, “Everyone already stirred up.”
Adelaide asked, “What about you? Are you?”
Rachel was silent, but not as a slave was silent. She didn’t cast her eyes down, or soften her expression. She stared at her sister, reminding her of the way they’d read the Emancipation Proclamation together.
Adelaide sat back wearily in her chair. “Don’t know how we’ll manage without matzah.”
Rachel laughed. “We could mix together cornmeal and water, bake it into a pone, put it on a plate, and call it the bread of affliction.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
A week before the holiday, Adelaide came back from her father’s place with a basket over her arm. She set it on the kitchen table and said to Rachel, “You’ll never guess what came through the blockade.”
“Coffee?” Rachel missed coffee even more than she missed marmalade.
Adelaide opened the basket and folded back the napkin. Wrapped in it were three rounds of matzah. “Bread of affliction.”
The former slaves put on their meeting clothes and came shyly through the front door, not believing that they were welcome as guests. Their former mistress said, “Come in, all of you, into the dining room.”
The silver candlesticks had been set on the sideboard, and every leaf had been added to the table, which was covered with the damask tablecloth. Rachel and Adelaide had put out the full set of china, and there was a wine glass at every place.
Zeke said to Adelaide, “It’s really all right, ma’am? To set on these fine chairs and use them glasses?”
“Yes, it is.” She settled her guests, who sat stiffly in the chairs, and touched the silver forks and spoons in surprise.
All her life, Rachel had stood against the wall, waiting to serve during the Seder. She had listened to the story of freedom as a slave, unwelcome at the table. Now she sat, the silver Kiddush cup at her place, ready to hear the familiar story of slavery and freedom as an honored guest.
Adelaide read from the Haggadah in Hebrew: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.”
Rachel looked around the table, at the polite and puzzled faces of the other former slaves, who didn’t know the service, and for whom the Hebrew words were a mystery. She said to Adelaide, “Don’t read from your Passover book.”
“How will we have a proper Seder?”
“I’ll tell it.”
Before Adelaide could stop her, Rachel said, “A long time ago, in Bible times, the Jews were slaves to the Egyptians. The Egyptians made them work hard, in the hot sun, and their taskmasters—their overseers—beat the people if they didn’t work hard enough.” The people around the table began to murmur, a polite version of the way they called out in meeting. Rachel lifted her eyes to look around the table, seeing the interest in each face.
She said, “Pharaoh hated the Jews so much that he wanted to kill every boy baby that was born. But the Jews were too smart for him. They hid the babies, and one mother put her baby in a little ark of bulrushes, for Pharaoh’s daughter to find and to take in.”
Families torn asunder. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters sold away. They all remembered.
“Pharaoh’s daughter called him Moses, and when he grew up he found out how the Egyptians oppressed their slaves. His people. Killed the overseer who was beating a slave, and ran away into the desert.”
Wrought vengeance and stole away.
“But God had plans for him, and told him to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go. Wasn’t eager to do it. God had to prod him.
“Pharaoh was a hard man, harder than the worst Massa you ever saw, and God made his heart even harder.” Murmurs of agreement, and soft laughter around the table. “He told Moses no, wouldn’t let the slaves go free. So God sent plagues, one after another, every one worse than the last. Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Blight, like boll rot. Boils. Locusts to eat up the crop. Darkness in the middle of the day. And the last, the worst, striking every Egyptian first-born son dead, from the poorest Egyptian right up to Pharaoh himself.”
Laughter, louder now, at the vengeance on the Egyptians, who had oppressed the slaves so badly.
“The slaves got ready to go, but they were in such a hurry they couldn’t make proper bread. They made flat cakes, like johnnycake, and they packed up to leave. Pharaoh wasn’t done with them yet. He sent his army, all his horses and carts, right after them. But when they came to the Red Sea, the waters parted and they walked right through. Pharaoh’s army came after them and the waters covered them. But the Jews, the slaves, they were saved. They were free.”
There was silence around the table. Even the most fractious of them sat quietly, their faces reflective, as they recalled all of the pain of slavery, and all of the joy of Emancipation, and all of the turmoil since, of being free.
Micah broke the silence and began to sing. Lydia joined in, her lovely soprano twining around his pleasant baritone.
He sang of Moses, and Israel in the land of Egypt, and pleading with Pharaoh to let the people go free.
Adelaide said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that song before.”
Micah said, “It’s new, ma’am, since the war.”
“What is it called?”
Like every slave, Micah could wrap his mockery in the most servile of tones. “Called ‘Song of the Contrabands,’ ma’am, since they were the first to sing it.” Contrabands were slaves who had freed themselves before Emancipation by slipping away to the protection of the Union Army.
Charlie blurted out, “Can’t you behave any better than that? Missus Adelaide invites you into her house, sets you at her table, and you act like that! A free man has better manners!”
Micah addressed his former mistress with elaborate politeness. “I beg your pardon, ma’am.”
Adelaide looked around at all of her restless former slaves. A former slaveowner needed good manners, too. Sweetly—the lady’s way of irony—she said, “It’s a fine song. Perhaps, next year, it will be called ‘Song of the Freedmen.’”