Pesach and Abraham Lincoln’s 150th Yahrzeit: Reflections on God’s Role in History

Photograph taken by Jewish photographer-friend of Lincoln, Samuel Alschuler, who lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for the occasion. Urbana, Illinois, April 25, 1858, Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Photograph taken by Jewish photographer-friend of Lincoln, Samuel Alschuler, who lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for the occasion. Urbana, Illinois, April 25, 1858, Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Yossi Prager

A new exhibit on Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, paired with a beautiful new book by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, has refocused Jewish attention on Abraham Lincoln. The proximity to Pesach is appropriate, as both the Jewish Exodus and Civil War are freedom stories. The connection is even deeper, however. Lincoln and Pesach became forever linked when, in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on the eve of the fifth night of Pesach, making this Pesach (2015) Lincoln’s 150th “yahrzeit.” In honor of the occasion, I invite you to reflect this Pesach on God’s role in human history, a theme common to the Haggadah and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

The Haggadah is a story of the increasing revelation of God’s hand in history. God informed Abraham in advance that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land, yet God chose to bring about this result through natural means: the brothers’ sale of Joseph, followed by a famine that led to Jacob’s family’s immigration to Egypt and ultimately to a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” and enslaved the Jews. When God sent Moshe to demand freedom for the Jews, Pharaoh refused to recognize the sovereignty of the God of the Jews. God responded with ten very public plagues to show the Egyptians and the Jews Who rules human history. The peak of divine revelation occurred in the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people had been transformed from a ragged and divided family into a great nation, carrying a divine mission.

Throughout the early history of the Jewish people described in the Bible, God’s sovereignty over human history was reinforced when necessary through miracles. Toward the end of the biblical period, God began to conceal the divine hand. The best biblical example is the story of the Megillat Esther, in which salvation apparently came to the Jewish people through a series of natural coincidences and without even a single reference to God. The Haggadah nonetheless reminds us that God remains active in history: “In each generation, as a new enemy rises to destroy the Jews, God saves us from them.”

By the third year of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was engaged in a mighty, personal effort to understand God’s purpose in perpetuating a terrible Civil War, which at times took the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers in a single battle. In a private meditation to himself found after his death, Lincoln wrote (most likely in 1862):

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God…. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Lincoln believed in the justice of the Union’s cause and also thought the Union army to be the stronger force. He expected a faster war. Yet God seemed to will the war to continue. Why? Lincoln might have said – as many of us might – that we cannot untangle God’s purposes. But Lincoln chewed over the question until he believed he had found an answer – one that satisfied his theological questions as well as his political need to bind the North and South together.

By his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, Lincoln was ready to provide the answer:

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses … He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war … shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””

God, argued Lincoln, held both the North and the South responsible for slavery in America, and drew blood “with the sword” as retribution for “blood drawn with the lash.” Why? Because all 13 Colonies permitted slavery. Slavery may have been abolished in the North earlier than in the South, but Lincoln viewed that as in large measure due to differences in the economies of the two sections of America. The North and South each had their own purposes for the war, but God had a larger purpose, to punish the North and South for the sin of slavery. In a single paragraph, Lincoln stripped the North of its self-righteousness and triumphalism. For Lincoln, understanding God’s purpose in history led naturally to the more famous part of the Address, which called for “malice to none, and charity to all.” In Lincoln’s calculus, the South was wrong to perpetuate slavery, but both sides bore responsibility for its initiation.

The Haggadah draws on biblical texts to explain that God liberated Abraham’s descendants to become the carriers and implementers of the divine message. Lincoln’s interpretation of God’s purpose was far bolder, however, as he is not building on the biblical story. The Second Inaugural Address reflects his own personal effort to understand God’s purpose. The Address also reflects Lincoln’s view that the role of a leader is to provide a religious explanation as a way of drawing the nation together.

I am among the many who believe that Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president. Yet, I recoil from the chutzpah in Lincoln’s claim to understand God’s purposes in his day. Putting ourselves in God’s shoes is tricky business. Think about other applications: is it fair to acclaim the State of Israel as a realization of long-standing divine promises without attributing the Holocaust that preceded it to some divine purpose? Yet who could dare explain the divine purpose in the deaths of innocents during the Holocaust? The issue of interpreting God’s purposes is troubling, and perhaps raises questions for your own Pesach table in this 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s yahrzeit.

For me, Lincoln’s chutzpah is redeemed by his profound determination to take God seriously and attempt to conform his actions to what he perceived as God’s expectations. As we begin to celebrate the Festival of Freedom and thank God for our freedom and mission as a Jewish people, I draw inspiration as well from an American politician who brought freedom to the United States. I wish you all a Chag Same’ach!

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.