Tag Archives: seder

A Seder of (In)Convenience

This a text version of my Shabbat morning sermon from 4/1/17

In my very first year of rabbinical school, in one of my classes, one of our assignments was to read the weekly Torah portion and to be prepared to discuss it.   This was the first time in my life I had ever read through the entire Torah week by week, and everything was going along very smoothly.  Genesis was wonderful, all of the great stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs, their various trials and tribulations.  Exodus was terrific, with the Passover narrative, and Moses, and Pharaoh, and the plagues, even if it bogged down a little bit at the end with all of the information about the tabernacle.  Then we got to Leviticus.  And I began to read this morning’s Torah portion, Vayikra, with its descriptions of the various animal sacrifices, and how the animals were killed, what was done with parts of their bodies, how the blood was sprinkled, and I had no access to it.  There was no narrative at all, but even worse the material was so obscure and arcane, there was no way for me to feel any connection to it.

So I went to a young rabbi who was teaching at the time at the University of Judaism where I was studying, and I told him there seemed to be no way for me to connect to Leviticus at all.  And this is what he said to me – “Think of the most valuable thing you own.  Something that is important to you, something you need in your day to day life, maybe even rely on.  Maybe your car.  Now imagine this – you’ve got a nice new Lexus.  But you feel that maybe you’ve done something wrong.  So you go to the rabbi in your neighborhood, and the rabbi says ‘here is what you are going to do.  Take your new Lexus, and offer it up as a sacrifice to God.  Take it to the local junk yard, hand it over to the worker there, and watch as the car is put into one of those car compactors, and crushed to bits.’”

Then my teacher said “that is probably the best way for us to get into the mind of an Israelite who brought an animal to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice it as an offering to God.  That animal was the most valuable thing that Israelite owned.  By far.  It was something he relied on, maybe every day, for food, or plowing his field, or both.  And yet he was willing to take that thing, as valuable as it was, as important as it was to him, and to hand it to the priest, watch the priest slaughter the animal, and in his mind give that animal over to God.”

Now I didn’t have a new Lexus back in those days – but the idea –  the image – helped me understand the book of Leviticus, helped me connect to it – and also gave me a powerful insight into what our ancestors experienced as they approached the Temple, the Priest, and they believed God’s presence, willing to sacrifice something that was enormously valuable to them for a chance to feel closer to that Divine Presence.

So with that sense of sacrifice as context, I would like to think with you for a moment about a growing trend I see in the community today, and about how maybe we should be willing to make some sacrifices – not talking about your car! – relatively small sacrifices – sacrifices of time, maybe of inconvenience, maybe travel – so that this trend does not continue to grow.

The trend itself I would guess you probably have all heard about, maybe even experienced.  I’ve seen it with Hanukkah, and it is happening now with Pesah – where a family will decide to take their celebration of the holiday and move it to the closest convenient weekend evening – even thought that is not the actual holiday.  So for example people will have their Hanukkah dinner and party on a Saturday or Sunday evening before the holiday starts, because it is more convenient for members of the family.  This in my mind was not ideal, but Hanukkah at the end of the day is not one of our major holidays.  And by the way, even if people move their Hanukkah dinners, they still seem to light the menorah on the right nights.

But now people are starting to do it with Pesah.  So for example this year the seders are held on Monday and Tuesday evening, the 10th and 11th of April.  And I know there are some people who are planning to have the seders on the weekend before, say on Saturday night the 8th.  And I understand how much easier it makes the holiday!  First of all you don’t have to worry about getting up for work on Sunday, like you do on Tuesday or Wednesday.  On Saturday people don’t have to rush to get home from work to make it to the beginning of the seder.  If people want to travel from out of town, it is much easier and much less disruptive to travel for the weekend, and not miss work.  I get it!   And if you push me, and say is it better to do it on Saturday night than to not do it at all, I would probably say yes.

But I would ask you to keep the following things in mind.  The first is there are a series of commandments that each Jew is supposed to fulfill on the evening of Passover at the seder.  The eating of matzah is only one, but also the eating of bitter herbs, the 4 cups of wine, even the telling of the story at the seder table is considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  And the tradition is very clear – if you don’t do those things on the night of the seder you have not fulfilled the commandments.  The only way you can is by doing it on the right nights.

The second thing is I think it is an important lesson to teach our children and grandchildren by saying this takes priority.  The Passover seder takes priority.  It takes priority over work, or inconvenience, or time or travel issues.  And if you take children out of school to travel to get to the Passover seder on the right night, or if they miss school the next day, or if you take a half a day off of work, it shows your children and grandchildren how important this is.  And they will remember that – they will remember “my family put everything else aside so we could come together for the seder.”  It was that important.  It is a great lesson to teach our kids.

And the last thing is this.  Sometimes to live a full and meaningful Jewish life, you have to make some sacrifices.  In fact I would argue that sometimes making sacrifices helps us to live a full and meaningful Jewish life.  We are not talking about sacrificing the most valuable object that we own, something our ancestors were willing to do for God and for the tradition.  But if our ancestors were willing to do that, shouldn’t we be willing to make some small sacrifices here and there to give our Judaism the respect and honor it deserves?

Having the seder on the right night may require some sacrifice.  It may be inconvenient, it may create logistical difficulties or travel problems.  But it is the right  thing to do.  For us, for the tradition, maybe most importantly of all for our children and grandchildren.  May we all be blessed to sit with the generations of our family at the seder table – on the eve of Pesah – for many, many years to come.

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Seeing Ourselves as Slaves

My favorite line in the entire Haggadah comes just after the explanation of the 3 main ritual foods of the seder, the Pesah, the Matzah, and the Marror.  You may remember that section – we turn to each of the ritual foods, we explain that the Pesah sacrifice was eaten because?  God passed over the houses of the Israelites, and the offering harks back to the lamb’s blood that marked the Israelite homes as distinct from the Egyptian homes.  The matzah?  Matzah is explained as a symbol of leaving hurriedly, as Moses tells the people they must leave immediately and they don’t even have time to let their dough rise.  And Marror?  The bitterness of slavery – as it says in the Haggadah, שמיררו המצרים את חיי אבותינו – – the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors.

And the line that I love comes right after the marror section, where the Haggadah tells us that when we sit down at the seder table we have an obligation to see ourselves  – personally – חייב אדם לראות את עצמו – as if we had been slaves in Egypt, and we were actually redeemed from our slavery by God.

In many ways I feel that this is the most difficult of all the commandments we are supposed to fulfill at the seder table.  It is true that our patience may wear thin as we try to get through the telling of the story before we eat.  And if you have particularly hot horseradish for your HIllel sandwich that can be a difficult moment.  But these are things we can do if we choose to do them.  Being asked – for an evening -to actually believe that you were a slave and were given your freedom is far more difficult.  Forst of all it is a task of imagination, a task of the mind, which is hard to measure in and of itself.  We know if we’ve eaten the bitter herbs or not – but did we really feel like we were slaves?

And that difficulty is compounded by the fact that our experience, our lives, our day to day, is so far removed from the sense of oppression and persecution and degradation that marks the life of a slave.  When my grandparents sat at a seder table they at least had a sense of what that life feels like – they knew hardship, they were poor, they came from eastern Europe where they had been persecuted.  But the majority of Jews today have an entirely different experience – we’ve grown up in comfortable homes, many of us never needing to worry about money, let alone whether we would have food on our table or a roof over our heads.  And that I think is our challenge at the seder table – growing up in that kind of comfort and privilege, how are we to fulfill the command of tasting the experience of slavery?

And to try to answer that question I would like to turn for a moment to a theological conundrum that is tucked into the very end of the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals that is traditionally recited after the seder.  What is a theological conundrum?  Essentially a problem with God, or maybe better stated a problem with how God seems to work or not work.  The problem stems from a verse that actually comes from Psalms, the 37th Psalm if you are keeping track of these things, and it appears in the very last paragraph of the Grace After Meals, in fact it is the second to the last sentence.  Anyone know what it is?  נער הייתי גם זקנתי ולא ראיתי צדיק נעזב וזרעו מבקש לחם – I was young, and now am old, YET I have never seen a righteous person forsaken or his children  begging for bread.

So what is the theological problem here?  It is not true.  In fact, the opposite is true!  We have all seen a righteous person who has had terrible sadness and pain in their life, who had to struggle with illness, or loss, or failure, or poverty.  The list could go on and on.  The verse from the Psalm seems to indicate that if you are righteous your life will be good, but we know that there is not really a connection between those two things – a person might be righteous and have a difficult life.

Now I am not the first person to recognize this problem in the Grace After Meals, in fact a tradition developed over time to not even say that line out loud, or to whisper it when the Grace After Meals is being sung.  Because what if you are singing the prayer and right at your table is a righteous person who is poor?  You don’t want to throw this idea right in that person’s face.  You would be implying that maybe they aren’t righteous.  Maybe they’ve done something wrong to deserve their sorrow.  So you whisper.

But I would like to suggest a different way of understanding the problematic verse that may enable us to say it out loud without concern at our seders tonight, and also might help us in some way to reconnect with, or at least to remember in a more powerful way, the experience of slavery.  To arrive at that different understanding we have to redefine one word in the verse, the verb ראיתי which means ‘I saw.’   You remember the verse?  I was young, now am old, yet have never seen a righteous person forsaken – לא ראיתי I have never seen it!

That same word – raiti – is used in a very different way in the book of Esther.  You may remember the famous scene in Esther where she musters up her courage to enter the King’s throne room uninvited to plead for the Jewish people.  The King extends his scepter, and then Esther speaks so movingly to him he decides he will annul Haman’s decree, and the Jews will be spared.  At the very end of her speech she says this:  eichacha uchal v’raiti – how can I bear to see the destruction of my people.  And how can I bear to see the destruction of my family?  And in that verse, the verb raiti, repeated twice, has a very different meaning than it does in the Grace After Meals.  Esther is saying ‘how can I stand by, and watch, and NOT do anything?’  It is a rhetorical question – what she is really saying is I cannot stand by and see this, and not do something about it.  And with Esther’s understanding of the verb the problematic line from the Grace After Meals might be translated this way:  I was young, and now am old but I have done my best NOT to stand still and watch while others suffered.

That is not a bad message to bring in at the end of a seder.  Stuffed with food, grateful for our lives and our blessings, we say ‘yes, we’ve eaten, we have so much, but that has not made us insensitive to the suffering of others.’  I like this interpretation in part because it ties in to the beginning of the seder, when we say ‘ha lachma anya‘ – this is poor person’s bread.  We open the seder reminding ourselves of the needs of others, reminding ourselves that there are still poor people in this world, perhaps even in our community, perhaps even in our family.  And we conclude the Grace After Meals reminding ourselves of the same thing.  Maybe even more important at the end of the seder when we are full from the food we’ve eaten and might be tempted to forget that others don’t have what we do.

With this new understanding, the verse also reminds us that there is still suffering in the world.  Even if we don’t feel it or experience it in our own lives, it is all around us, and we have a responsibility to work to alleviate that suffering.  And in doing that work we are brought into closer contact with struggle and suffering, and that should help us remember what it feels like to be a slave, to experience bitterness and hardship  – and through that sense to be even more grateful for the freedom that this great holiday celebrates.

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Again, Goodbye

a text version of comments from yesterday’s Yizkor introduction –

Each year when I sit down to seder with my family I feel that my bubbie and zayde and there at the table with me. Not physically – at this point they’ve been gone for many years. My zayde died in 1976, and my bubbie just after we came to Baltimore, in 1999. But there is a powerful sense of their presence, the product of so many shared seders over the years, of particular memories from those nights in Baltimore, my father’s extended family all gathered around, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents. My bubbie was relatively quiet at those seders of my youth, involved with the cooking and cleaning, making her famous mundle bread, always eaten right after the fruit and chocolate covered nuts and just before the afikoman, and truth be told sometimes even after. She was a strong willed woman, never one to mince words, who in her own very particular and unmistakable way challenged the generations of her family – her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – with the importance of living a meaningful Jewish life.
My zaydie was a very different person. Soft spoken and gentle of spirit, he was a kind hearted soul from the old country. I remember him always in a white button down shirt, slightly rumpled, with pressed trousers, and often a straw hat perched on his head, thick glasses slightly obscuring his eyes. He was not the fighter my bubbie was, more accepting of modern life, and yet proud of his Judaism and the family he watched grow around him over the years. I have a distinct memory to this day of the very first time I chanted the four questions. My father is the youngest of four brothers, I was the youngest of the children ready to tackle the task. I had practiced in Hebrew school, and when the time came I was called to the head of the table where my bubbie and zayde sat together. My zayde had the haggadah open in front of him, and with one hand he pointed to the text on the page, while with the other he put his arm around my shoulders as I began the Mah Nishtana.
These are the family memories the seder table evokes. Where a grandparent sat, what a cousin always said, how an uncle said the kiddish every year, the chocolate cake recipe of an aunt that no one can make in quite exactly the same way. Of course it isn’t just Passover that brings these memories to our minds. There are Rosh Hashanah dinners, and Yom Kippur break-fasts, recollections of playing with the fringes of someone’s tallit, of sitting in particular seats each year, of how someone sang a part of the service with gusto. The sense in the tradition is that the holidays are moments of sanctified time, but over the years part of their sacred quality comes from the time that has been spent on those days with the people most important to us in our lives, with whom we have most intimately shared the journey of our own years. On the other days of the year they are in our minds, always a part of our day to day lives. But during the holidays we feel as if we are sharing time with them again, as if in some way this world and the world to come touch, and we can reach from one to the other.
I suspect that is why we are asked to say yizkor precisely at the moments when the holidays are coming to an end. Here it is, the very last day of Pesah – thank goodness! – and we gather for yizkor. But it is the same for every yizkor service. On Yom Kippur, the day that concludes the 10 days of repentance. On Shemini Atzeret, that last day of the Sukkoth festival cycle. Not the first day, but the second and last day of Shavuot. Cynics might say this was done because these would be days of light shul attendance, and so the yizkor service was put in on these days to bring Jews to the synagogue. As Rabbi Loeb used to say, the dead bring out the living. But the custom of reciting yizkor prayers is now almost a thousand years old, and back in those days my guess is most folks went to services. So there must be another reason why the end of each holiday period was chosen for yizkor.
And I believe that reason is so that we can say goodbye, once again. When the holidays end we go back to our regular lives, to the secular world with its concerns and worries, its distractions and the sense it contains of time passing so quickly. We lose the sense of timelessness that the holidays give us, of connection to things past, great events that shaped our people, but also the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters, the aunts, uncles, and friends who have shaped our lives, and helped to form our characters. May they rest in peace. And may we honor their memories by the way we live our own lives.

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A Single Seder, and Around the World

Last night I had the privilege of conducting a ‘learning’ seder at St. Timothy’s School, a 182 year old local prep-boarding school for girls.  We’ve been doing this pre-Passover seder for many years now.  It gives the girls, many of whom are not Jewish, a chance to experience the Passover rituals.  Each table has a seder plate, complete with bitter herbs, haroset, a roasted bone (OK, they use a chicken wing bone!), an egg, and matzah.  We go through the ’30 minute Haggadah’ in about 20 minutes, and then the school serves the girls a fairly traditional Passover dinner, to included brisket and matzah stuffing.  The school does a fabulous job of promoting religious pluralism, and there is a genuine respect for different faith traditions and perspectives.

This was clearly evident just from the table I was sitting at.  I shared my meal with a Christian girl from Nebraska, a Buddhist girl from Vietnam, a Muslim girl from Afghanistan, and a Jewish girl from Pikesville, and the school’s Episcopalian pastor.  Talk about ecumenical!  The girl from Nebraska told me she had known only one Jewish family before coming to Baltimore for school.  It went without saying that the girls from Vietnam and Afghanistan had never met Jews in their lives before their St. Tim’s experience.  And here we all were, sitting at the same table, and sharing a seder meal!  The girls were deeply interested in the Passover story and the various and sundry customs of the holiday.  They asked questions, they offered thoughtful responses.  They were clearly close.  As seniors, they had roomed together, studied together, cheered for each other on the athletic field.  Kudos to St. Timothy’s for fostering such a caring, welcoming, tolerant, and genuinely respectful environment.  It was one of those moments that brings hope to a rabbi’s heart – maybe one day we really will all get along.

Of course the Passover story works perfectly with this ultimate hope and dream.  It is the most particular of our narratives, recalling the moment when God took US from slavery to freedom.  The Haggadah text reminds us that on the night of Passover each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she had actually been a slave and personally redeemed by God.  Yet at the same time it is the most universalistic of our stories.  After all, doesn’t every person yearn to be free?  Isn’t freedom the most fundamental human right?  And doesn’t each person – regardless of faith, color, country, gender – deserve to be free, treated with dignity and respect, and seen as a creature created in the image of God?  

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What a Difference a Day Makes

Here in Maryland we’ve had a harder than usual winter, and the old man seems to want to hang on for everything he’s got.  Generally at this time of year the trees are greening and some folks have even mowed their lawns already, but we just finished a weekend that was at best miserable weather-wise.  Temperatures struggled to get out of the 30s, and it poured rain virtually non-stop for 48 hours.  Just to make sure we all know who is in charge the rain unexpectedly changed to snow mid-afternoon yesterday, and a ‘wintry mix” (this is evidently a technical term favored by weather reporters) fell into the evening.  I walked the dog yesterday afternoon, wind howling, rain, sleet, and snow coming down, about 35 degrees.  Just lovely.  If this is spring who needs winter?!

What a difference a day makes!  Just an hour ago I walked the dog, and he happily sniffed his way around the neighborhood on a lovely early spring evening.  Clear skies, gentle breezes, low 60s.  People were out, washing cars, trimming trees, actually looking for excuses to spend some time out of doors with the promise of a real spring in the air.  Even the home team won on opening day.  Go Os!  What a difference a day makes indeed.

We might say the same thing about life.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in the rabbinate it is that things can change on a dime.  One phone call, and your whole life can be turned upside down.  You can go to bed at night with everything fine in your world, and wake up in the morning with overwhelming challenges confronting you.  But the opposite is also true.  A new day can bring a change in the weather for the better.  An unexpected helping hand, a sudden realization that there is blessing right in front of you, a phone call from an old friend.  

So often it is the small things that  help to reorient our dark days.  Dark clouds do clear away.  The snow (and even the rain) does stop eventually.  Spring comes, and with it the promise of redemption.  ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ we say at the end of the seder.  A place where each soul is on a higher plane.  And on Opening Day there is always a promise in the air.  Not next year in Jerusalem, but this year, the World Series!

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My Brothers and Sisters

text version of sermon delivered on 3/29

This Shabbat is the last in a series of four special Shabbats leading up to Pesah, calledשבת החדש, meaning the Sabbath of THE month, namely the month of Nissan that is about to begin. There is a special maftir reading, and also a special haftara associated with the day, both of which describe the celebration of the Passover holiday, in the the maftir reading, the very first Passover that the Israelites observed in Egypt, smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts so the angel of death would pass – over their homes, and in the haftara a description of a future Passover that will be observed in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.
Both texts emphasize the importance of the Passover holiday in the Jewish consciousness, in the first case the sense that the very first communal moment that we shared as a people was a Passover celebration, and in the second case that even in the future, in a time when we are expecting the Messiah, we will still be celebrating the Passover holiday, sitting at our seder tables, and telling the story of the Exodus to our children and grandchildren. That this Shabbat is called HAhodesh, the Sabbath of THE month, also shows how important Passover is in Judaism, calling the month the holiday falls in THE month. And when you add to that the fact that statistics consistently show that Passover is by far the most observed Jewish holiday, with upwards of %90 of Jews managing to go to a seder, it is quite clear that Passover is the Jewish holiday par excellence.
I grew up celebrating Passovers here in Baltimore, as each spring my parents would load my sister, my brother, and me into our car and we would drive south from Binghamton to what used to be, at least, warmer spring weather than we were used to in upstate New York. It was a special time for me each year, not only because I was able to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but also because of the holiday itself, the rituals of the seder night, the special foods, and the almost magical way that Passover has of creating a time that feels sacred. Each year Passover was probably the most deeply felt Jewish time of my childhood, along with the fall holidays, and without question looking back I know that the holiday and its themes became core building blocks of my Jewish identity.
There was another spring experience during those trips south in my youth that helped to shape my Jewish self as well, and that was, strange as it may seem, my celebration of Easter. My mother is a convert to Judaism, so I grew up with one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and when Passover and Easter were close together, we would travel from Pikesville to Catonsville to see them, often on Easter Sunday. We didn’t go to Church with them of course, but we would come for Easter dinner, joining with cousins and aunts and uncles from the other side of my family for a meal that did not have four cups of wine and matzah and bitter herbs, but was festive nonetheless. I still remember to this day running around in my grandparents yard on an easter egg hunt, competing with the other children to see how many eggs I could collect, and I also remember sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table, dying the eggs in bright spring colors.
Those experiences first and foremost affirmed my sense that I was part of a larger world, not just a Jewish world. I already knew this from growing up in a relatively small town with few Jews, and the truth is for a time I was the only Jewish child in my elementary school – the only one! But to know that I had family members who were not Jewish, and what is more to know that they had their own faith tradition that was rich and meaningful, reminded me year in and year out that God didn’t only care about the Jews, and that God wasn’t only interested in the Jews, but that God valued, cared about, and was interested in other faith traditions just as much as Judaism.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of Pesach and Easter left me, even at that young age, with the indelible impression that what we share is far greater than what divides us. I could not help but think, as I searched for Easter eggs, that just the night before I had been sitting with a seder plate in front of my eyes, and there next to the shank bone was a roasted – ? – egg! And if you know anything at all about Easter you know that it is a big candy holiday, with Easter baskets filled with chocolate bunnies, eggs, chicks, and jelly beans, and other tasty treats. But did you ever stop to think about how much candy we eat on Pesah? Chocolate covered almonds, apricots, raisins, macaroons – for crying out loud, we even make chocolate covered matzah! I don’t know about you, but I eat more chocolate during the 8 days of Pesah than I do the rest of the year combined! Just imagine my dilemma – after gorging on chocolate Passover treats, the very next morning I was confronted with a large chocolate bunnie – talk about a good problem!
But I learned another valuable lesson from those experiences, also formative in my Jewish identity, and that was that my Judaism made me distinct, it made me different. I still believe to this day that one of the very best ways to learn about yourself and deeply understand who you are and what is important to you is to spend time with who and what you are not. In some ways it is only through those experiences that the lines begin to form, and you start to have a sense that there are certain core parts of your identity that belong to you and make you part of a particular people with a particular history, a particular story, and a particular relationship with God. Certainly that is very much what Passover is about, but isn’t it funny that I learned that lesson in a powerful way on an Easter egg hunt many years ago.
Last night we had the fortune and blessing to share our evening services with the members of Union Bethel AME Church and their spiritual leader Pastor Sembly. Tomorrow morning, our choir and Beth El members will travel to their church, joining together in worship, study, song, and celebration. This is an experience for our congregation that we take great pride in, and although we are not able to do it every year, when we do do it, we always do it in the spring, when the earth comes back to life, when Jews sit at their seder tables, and when Christians celebrate the origins of their faith, come together in Church, and thank God for the blessing of renewed life, and on the Sunday afternoon of Easter share a sacred meal and look for hidden eggs.
It is a time of year when our faith traditions share more than they do at any other time, and it is also the time of year when we are most acutely aware of our own stories our own history, and our distinctiveness. What is perhaps most important of all is to let this sacred season remind us that God Godself rejoices in our difference, celebrates our distinctions, and accepts each of our paths as authentic and true. And also when we hold ourselves up in the great glory of God’s essence, we know deep down that we are truly all brothers and sisters, and that we have come from the same source, the Living God. I’ll conclude this morning with the words of this old Christian spiritual, a song I am familiar with because it was sung many times by the Jerry Garcia Band – the title of the song, appropriate for us this weekend, is My Sisters and Brothers, by the song writer Charles Johnson – here is the chorus –

Walk together little children,
You don’t ever have to worry,
Through this world of trouble
We gotta love one another,
Let’s take our fellow man by the hand
Try to help him to understand
We will all be together for ever and ever
When we make it to the promised land.

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