In my years as a camper at Camp Massad Bet in the 1960’s, each and every camper bunk had to select a name for itself based on the name of a real place in the State of Israel. It then had to produce a plaque -– a shelet, in Hebrew-–that would represent the place/name it had chosen. When all the plaques were completed, there would be a competition to decide which was the best. All the bunks would gather together, and a representative from each bunk would have to explain — in Hebrew, of course — the symbolism of what appeared on the plaque.
So there was blue to represent the beauty of the Mediterranean, or the deep rich color of the Jerusalem sky, green for the desert that had been made to bloom… but red was always a challenge. What did red represent?
The readily available and always useful answer, as we all quickly learned and joked about, was that red represented dam hayehudi hashafuch… the Jewish blood that had been spilled throughout our history. Red was never a problem once you could remember dam hayehudi hashafuch…
I thought about those days in Massad just this past week, when I was to teach a workshop in my own synagogue about “Difficult Texts in the Haggadah.” If you are at all conversant with the Haggadah text, you know immediately that any workshop with that title will immediately have as its focus the “Sh’foch Chamat’cha” paragraph that is recited when we open the door to welcome Elijah into our homes. In a relatively few words, the prayer expresses a clear and unambivalent longing for divinely inflicted physical retribution against those nations that have persecuted the Jewish people. It is all about dam hayehudi hashafuch– the blood of Jews that was spilled during the many episodes of persecution that our people have suffered, and the desire to see that suffering be avenged.
There are a few things about the Sh’foch Chamat’cha that should immediately be noted.
The first is that it is hardly the only liturgical example of this kind of text in our tradition. Every Shabbat morning, many congregations recited the Av Harachamim prayer before the Musaf service. That prayer, a liturgical response to the horrors of the Crusades experienced by the Jewish communities of the Rhineland, explicitly asks for vengeance against those who have tormented us. It’s not hard to understand why. Also, while many Jews are intimately familiar with the stirring words of Psalm 137, which include both “By the rivers of Babylon,” and also “Im Eshkacheich,” the pledge of allegiance of the modern State of Israel, I’m not sure how many have read the psalm through to its ending. There, it praises those who would smash the heads of our enemies’ babies against a stone. Yes, very angry indeed…
The second, which to me is no less significant (and a great topic of conversation for a Seder), is that the Sh’foch Chamat’cha is recited as we invoke our longing for the Messiah. Passover is about recalling the ancient redemption from Egypt, of course, but it is also about our longing for the other pole of Jewish history to be actualized. We desperately want the ultimate redemption from human experience and its slings and arrows to come speedily and in our time, and so it is that Elijah makes an appearance at every Seder. The question that is relevant for us in the context of Sh’foch Chamat’cha is, how do we vision messianic times? Will the messiah come to usher in a world of peace and tranquility? Will the world be fundamentally different from what it is like now? And even if the answer to that question is to be yes, we must still wonder whether the physical vanquishing of our enemies- the settling of historical scores, if you will– is the necessary precursor of Messianic times.
I know Jews who literally will cringe as they listen to the concluding chapters of the Book of Esther, when the Megillah describes how the Jews of Shushan killed thousands of their enemies. And similarly, they cringe when they read the words of Sh’foch Chamat’cha – or, more commonly, they simply don’t read them at all. And I understand them. They don’t want the inequities of our sorry history to be addressed by perpetrating horrors on others.
And, of course, it should be clear that the ethical issues presented by Sh’foch Chamat’cha are compounded if one has non-Jews attending one’s Seders, which my wife and I regularly do. In face, just a few years ago, the Bishop of Brooklyn and Queens attended one of our Seders accompanied by a wonderful priest and nun. The question for me was a real and difficult one: is this the year to skip over Sh’foch Chamat’cha and find a more universalistic way to express a longing for ultimate redemption?
After much consideration, I decided to leave it in– but I framed it very consciously, and carefully. I said that it represents the reservoir of unresolved Jewish anger over the myriad atrocities that have been perpetrated against us throughout our history.
We Jews have known expulsions, pogroms, auto-da-fe’s, and, of course, the unique killing machine of the Nazis. How can we not be angry? The world, to be sure, tires of our anger, but when all is said and done, it’s the world’s fault that we have to live with this burden. I see nothing wrong with admitting to this reservoir of anger, if only to validate it and offer us a chance to move beyond it. Omitting the Sh’foch Chamat’cha is, to me, like pretending that the anger isn’t there, and that is simply a lie. All you have to do is look at how we Jews talk to each other and you’ll see the unhealthy anger bubbling over. Of course it’s there.
But Sh’foch Chamat’cha also affords us the opportunity to couple that anger with an equal and opposite vision that is grounded not in hatred but in hope. Perhaps– just perhaps – a messianic era will usher in an easier and less burdensome time for us, when being Jewish won’t require carrying around the awful burden of unresolved and harmful rage. And we won’t need cataclysmic violence to get there…