The Haggadah lends expression to the natural inclination to seek revenge against our oppressors. Our sages acknowledged the need for us, as a weak and persecuted people generation after generation, to seek the destruction of those who enslaved, persecuted, oppressed, and killed us throughout the ages. In the absence of our ability to destroy our enemies ourselves, the Haggadah has us ask God in two places to punish our enemies out of a sense of divine retribution and justice. The Haggadah describes God’s eternal promise to our people. That promise was first made to Abraham, and continues to the present day. We are to live in covenantal relationship with God, and God is to protect us, including meting divine judgment and punishment on those who would do us harm:
And it is this promise which has stood by our ancestors and us. For not just one has stood up [against us] but in every generation [tyrants] have stood up [even] to annihilate us, but the Holy One, Blessed be God, [always] save us from their might.
Later in the seder, the Haggadah has us invite Elijah the prophet into our homes, a harbinger both of a better future, as well as the prophet of God’s wrath. One opens the front door and declares:
Oh God, pour out Your wrath against the nations who have not recognized You, [Pour out Your divine anger] against those regimes who have not called Your name. For they have devoured [the People of] Jacob and decimated his land. Pour out Your rage against them; may Your anger overwhelm them. Pursue them and destroy them with Your ire from beneath the Heavens of the Lord.
Both of these statements assume the disenfranchised condition of the Jews throughout the diaspora, an exiled people. Without sovereignty, a government and an army, we beseeched God throughout the centuries to exact divine retribution, vengeance and justice on our behalf, since we could not do that ourselves.
Now, however, our condition is different. In America, the Jewish people are well integrated and enjoy political, social, and economic influence and power. Zionism has triumphed with the establishment of the State of Israel, a sovereign nation with powerful, sophisticated military strength, a strong intelligence community and a thriving economy. Under these changed circumstances, I believe that we need to read these texts from the Haggadah differently. Instead of asking God to avenge our suffering by meting out divine justice, we should reinterpret these passages as allocating vengeance to God alone, in order for us as a strong power in the world to actualize the divine hope for a world of greater compassion, kindness, trust and human dignity. The Jewish people are now capable of causing great pain and suffering, of refusing to talk with enemies, of remaining unforgiving, of behaving arrogantly, intoxicated by power. The Jewish people are capable of denying rights to minority and weak populations such as women, LGYBTQ+ individuals, Palestinians, Gazans, and non-orthodox Jews. As an empowered majority in Israel, we are capable of perpetrating attitudes and actions that cause significant physical and emotional damage that foment deep hatred. And these attitudes are often justified in the name of religion, as the voices of orthodox Jews tragically become more strident, narrow, and exclusionary.
Pesach is a time to liberate our minds from the bondage of narrowness, racism, cruelty, hatred, and oppression–not the mind-set and actions of others against us, but of us in response to so many others. Now is the time for the Jewish people to stop behaving as if we are an enslaved people, and assume the covenantal mantle of an empowered people privileged to bring God’s covenantal vision for a more inclusive, diverse, safe world.