I can’t imagine the faith the Israelites must have had to act on their own behalf, paint their doorposts red, and, in so doing, participate with God in their own redemption from Egypt.
After generations of slavery, our ancestors’ spirits were surely beaten down. They faced so many obstacles; their way forward into the unknown dangers of the wilderness must have seemed as daunting, or perhaps more so, than Pharoah’s familiar lash. But with the miraculous power and inspiration of the Holy One, the brave leadership of Moses and Aaron, the faith of Nachshon who, tradition states, waded into the waters of the Reed Sea, and the stiff-necked determination of many other nameless Israelites, we stepped into the future and unlocked the shackles of oppression. At our seders, we recount that tale, celebrating the greatest redemption we’ve ever known as a people.
On a trip to New Orleans this past week with teens from our congregation, we were witnesses to a story that is unfolding in a remarkably familiar way.
In New Orleans, six years after Katrina, one of the worst man-made disasters in American history, there are still doorposts painted red – large cross-slashes with codes indicating what dates the homes were checked by which state, federal or international agency, as well as indications of the numbers of dead animals and people that those agencies found inside. Most of the remaining doorpost markers are indications that thousands of families have never been able to return to their homes; Katrina exiled those families to Texas and Alabama and Florida and beyond, perhaps never to return. Some of the red “X’s” on homes in New Orleans have been left there intentionally by residents who have returned and rebuilt their lives – it’s part of a New Orleans sense of humor that we Jews can relate to.
Most impactful to me, though, was the experience of meeting the kind of people whose faith and courage would have made Moses want them by his side.
We met and volunteered with Amy, who began as the director of the Audubon Nature Refuge two months before Katrina. The fresh water marsh was inundated with 8-12 feet of salt water that destroyed the buildings where 60,000 school kids each year came to experience the beauty of the hardwood trees killed by the salinity of the flood. Amy is out there every day with groups of volunteers, battling with FEMA for recovery funding, planting new trees to bring back this vital natural protection barrier for the city, and fighting back invasive species like Chinese Tallow, which threaten the saplings. We spent time with Glenn, the 30-year volunteer birder at the center, who still walks the grounds, counting birds, alligators, and other wildlife, and teaching kids and adults about the beauty of nature in the midst of the devastation.
We met Laura, native of Demarest, and Lizzy from Boston, and Elisha from Minnesota, and John from Alabama, who were so troubled by what they saw during volunteer stints in the city that they left their comfortable lives and plans to come work side by side with their fellow Americans to lift up this city so vital to our economy.
And we met many others – waiters, cab drivers, university administrators, hotel employees, jazz musicians, and even a tour guide who, Af-Al-Pi-Chen, despite it all, are determined and dedicated to make the Crescent City truly great again. Having spent time with them, I can still hardly imagine the courage and conviction they must have, to see past the obstacles to progress, man-made and otherwise. They each have their own great faith that something much larger than them is happening; so, too, they’ve each committed themselves to gutting, framing, insulating, spackling, drywalling, sanding, building for a brighter future. And they won’t stop until everyone who wants to come home can indeed come home.
Amy and Glenn, Laura and Lizzy, Elisha and John, and countless, nameless others in the Big Easy have the faith of Aaron that things will get better and perhaps that God will provide; the vision of Moses to speak truth to power and to hold the powerful accountable; and the obstinate courage of our Israelite ancestors, who took one small step for freedom. This week of Passover, we celebrate the greatest redemption we have ever known. This year, let us also recall those many, named and unnamed, who are still dreaming and working for a world redeemed. And more, let us dedicate ourselves to pick up a hammer to join with them. Or maybe even a paintbrush.
There are still doorposts that need painting.