This teaching is about suffering, compassion, humility, arrogance, a lens on Jewish historical experience, passages from the Haggadah, and a perspective on the spiritual work challenging the Jewish people today.
The journey from enslavement, oppression and suffering to freedom carries layers of memory and feeling. Victims of recurrent oppression over many generations become vulnerable to cynicism, mistrust, anger and hatred. The Haggadah brilliantly lends expression to these feelings while redirecting the passions nourishing them at the same time. The Haggadah does this in two places. Immediately following Birkat haMazzon and the third cup of wine someone opens the door to the house and, evoking Elijah the Prophet, invites all to say the following words:
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.
This passage does not call the Jewish people to rise up and destroy our enemies. The passage provides an opportunity for Jews to express deep rage at the perpetrators, and calls God to act. The passage also suggests an etiology of cruelty. Violence against us is the result of idolatry. Only a regime that worships its own power, arrogant enough not to humble itself before the Creator of humanity, would be capable of such dehumanizing behavior. God created people with the ability to make decisions, including those who exercise their capacity for cruelty. As victims of that cruelty, the passage expresses our rage not against God, but against those nations, and asks God to respond accordingly. Pour out Your wrath is a liturgical supplication. What I find striking is that the Haggadah places God at the center of our suffering: “God, these nations have perpetrated unspeakable horrors against us; please subject them to the force of divine justice.” The assumption behind these lines is that ultimately, God can realign the imbalances in the world. I add that the inference is that the world that God envisions should be and can be a place of compassion, humility, kindness and love, and that there is hope for the future. If there is hope for our future, then there is hope for humanity. By referencing the nations who do not recognize God, the Haggadah implies that all nations can learn the spiritual truth of a shared humanity.
Earlier in the seder, there is an even more powerful liturgical reaction to our suffering throughout history. Immediately following the section in which we acknowledge that our own ancestors worshiped idols, the Haggadah says:
Blessed be the One who keeps this One’s promise to Israel, Blessed be God. For the Holy One predetermined the end of the Egyptian oppression, exactly as was said to Avraham in the Covenant of the Split Pieces, as the Torah states: “Know that your descendants will be aliens in a foreign land. Know that the host nation will enslave and oppress them. However, I will judge that nation that they will serve, and in the end your descendants will leave with great well-being.
This passage was placed in the Haggadah strategically. It follows the section in which we are asked to acknowledge our own idolatrous origins, to be honest about who we were and what therefore we are capable of still of becoming. Our journey to freedom, therefore, includes the demand that we be honest about ourselves, and understand that we also came from people who did not recognize a common origin of all humanity.
Avraham was different. He saw the world and all human beings as sharing a common origin. This humbled him. The rabbis taught that Avraham was blessed with an intuitive knowledge of God from the age of three. Knowledge of the divine “flowed through Avraham’s two spiritual kidneys.” Future generations, though, would have to learn and relearn what Avraham had already understood. Avraham’s progeny would have to experience vulnerability as a minority so that when we eventually would inherit a land and gain sovereign power, we would remember the lessons of humility and the dangers of arrogance. We would live through the cruelties that come from the idolatrous self-aggrandizements of tyranny and power, so that when we become sovereign in our own land, we would never perpetrate the same abuses against God’s creatures.
What will give us the hope and perspective necessary, though, to survive abuses of regimes dedicated to their own power? The inner strength of the Jewish people, articulated in this passage, resides in the hope and faith that God does not break divine promises. That is precisely the main theme of the piyyut, the liturgical poem appended to the description of the covenant to Avraham:
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.
The verb, stood, is used in two opposite ways, referring both to God’s saving power and to the powers of cruelty and oppression. Again, as in the passage above, Pour out Your wrath, God’s intervention is central to the amelioration of human suffering at the hands of abusive power. Even more than the Pour out Your wrath passage, this short liturgical poem emphasizes promise, trust, and faith. The strength of the Jewish people, even in response to abject evil and tyranny, lies in faith and trust. Faith in God’s vision for the world God created, faith in the role God has established for the Jewish people, and trust in a future which all nations, despite their origins and sins of arrogance and cruelty, are capable of recognizing a humanity that shares a single Creator. Such recognition can spawn the humility people and nations need to treat each other with dignity and respect.
Commentators through the centuries have read this passage in a similar way. Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik wrote:
This is the promise God made to our father, Avraham. The way to understand this promise was explained by the Tosefot in the Talmud Bavli Shabbat 55 in the name of Rabbenu Tam who said that although the merit of our ancestors no longer applies to us, the covenantal promise made by God persists.
Our sustainability rests on a promise, and promises rest on relational trust and faith in the future. Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel wrote, in his commentary, Zevach Pesach:
The promise that was made does not apply only to our ancestor’s exodus from exile [of Egypt] but to all subsequent sufferings including in our own day. The Abrabanel also emphasizes the centrality of trust and faith in a promise as our primary source of strength.
Finally, from the commentary Siach Yitzchak by Rabbi Yitzchak Malzan, a discipline of Rabbi israel Salanter in the 19th century:
…It should not be surprising or difficult to imagine the cruelty of oppression that our ancestors suffered in antiquity, and that continues to this day. People today appeal to the enlightenment, such that we have nothing to worry about any longer; no longer are the wolves in the forest. Yet, we see with our own eyes, regimes that plunder, steal, and oppress, murder and dehumanize the nation compared to sheep–the Jewish people. This realization teaches us two lessons. First, our faith is strengthened to realize that God’s sustaining promise to our ancestors will also protect us, and second, our experiences should instill in us a sense of gratitude to God for all of the love and mercy God bestows upon us every single minute of every day.
These commentaries all describe a response to our suffering caused by arrogant, cruel regimes. The suffering engenders deep anger, but that anger is always sublimated to nourish optimism and a deepened commitment to live in God’s covenant. Rather than teaching us to be mistrustful, cynical, arrogant, elitist, or hateful, the Haggadah provides language to vent our rage while reasserting a commitment to a covenantal vision of the future, a vision in which we can still see ourselves as the children of Abraham.
I worry that since our people have become a sovereign power that we have forgotten our mandate to live in a covenantal relationship with the Creator of the entire world. That relationship rests on a covenantal promise that has universal as well as particular implications. That promise is a promise that when the people of Israel return to their land, their power will be deployed as a source of inspiration for all peoples, that there will be a celebration of the world’s diversity as all nations “ascend to the House of the Lord, to the mountain of the God of Jacob.” (Isaiah 2:3) The promise to our people serves as a foundation for a sanctuary that will be regarded as a “house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) I fear that our people are paralyzed by a dialectic habit of mind that vacillates between fear and arrogance. As a result, we have forgotten the vision expressed by King David in Psalms 67:
To the Chief Musician with instrumental music, a psalm, a Song. May God give us grace & bless us, May God shine the Divine countenance among us – forever. For the world to know Your way, & among all the nations, Your salvation. Peoples [of the world] will thank You, God. All the nations will thank You. The nations will rejoice & sing [praises]. The people [of earth will praise You] because You judge the people with righteousness and You lead the nations of the earth, forever. Peoples [of the world] will thank You, God. All the peoples will thank You. The land will have yielded its produce – May You bless us Lord, our G·d. Lord bless us and they will live in awe of God. – from the ends of the earth.
This vision is at once particularistic and universalistic. Our story provides a paradigm for the hope of humanity, in all of its diversity, in all of its varied identities, practices and cultures. When King David wrote, “the land will have yielded its produce,” he described both the agricultural blessings of the land of Israel, and the healthy growth of humanity in “the land,” meaning, “throughout the world.” The phrase suggests God’s hope for a humanity that springs up throughout the earth to thrive with well-being. Chapter 2 of Genesis anticipates this vision by describing the world as a garden, from which humanity springs from the ground.
I worry that the ascension of power in the State of Israel and throughout America has intoxicated Jews into believing that the sensibilities gained by living amongst the nations are somehow not as authentic as living as a majority. I worry that our religious messaging has become too narrow, too self-serving, too arrogant, too uncompromising, too unwilling to include a broad, diverse swath of humanity within a covenantal tent. It might be that we, the Jewish people, have become our own worst enemy. It might be that this year at our sedarim, when we read the words, “…in every generation [tyrants] have stood up [even] to annihilate us,” we might consider that the tyranny described in this text is inside of us. It might be worth our while to recalibrate ourselves and instead of holding on to our sense of victimhood, our constant feeling of mistrust and persecution, of calling every challenge a smokescreen for antisemitism, that we recommit ourselves to feeling compassion for humanity, love for fellow human beings, and recognize that just as we suffered the loss of humanity as slaves in Egypt, we must be certain to protect the humanity and dignity of all human beings in a world filled with too much hatred, violence, bullying, arrogance and corruption.