What will Jews do this year?
Passover is a time of joy and freedom, anticipation and redemption. And because we are strong and free, we can afford one pointed flash of anger. After the meal, we traditionally open the door for Elijah and say three biblical verses of vindictiveness that begin “Pour out Your wrath…” Shfokh hamatkha al ha-goyim. We crave justice. We seek revenge. We ask that our enemies get their just desserts for all of the irrational hatred we’ve suffered. We note the spilled venom of centuries that has taken innocent Jewish lives.
When we say these verses from the Haggadah, we reflect on how, throughout our history, a holiday of freedom turned for so many into a public shaming fest, a flimsy excuse for a crusade or pogrom. We ask for God’s protection. We cower when we think of persecutions, inquisitions and blood libels started because of lies. No, Jews never used the blood of Christian children to make their matzah.
It would seem that the sages of old put these verses together as an emotional release valve. Rather than ignore our own feelings of rage altogether, they opted instead to create a small packet of literary rage linking us to an old and enduring anguish. It’s a knot of pain that seems hard to escape no matter how much we have evolved as human beings. We read “Shfokh hamatkha” — Pour out your wrath — after the meal, when we are well sated, when there is less room for anger. We read it because we can.
Yet in the past decades, fewer and fewer people want this reminder. Revenge and justice are Draconian words of the past. They seem uncivilized and uncouth. We don’t need to go there anymore. Subsequently, many modern Haggadot have dropped this passage altogether or reworded it to express the exact opposite sentiment: Pour out Your love. If God is love, then let positive and self-affirming emotions spill out over all the world, blanketing and cosseting us in dizzying embrace and affection.
It’s a lovely sentiment — cozy and warm — but hardly what we can say with any real authenticity this year. European anti-Semitism is more than fashionable. It has reached new brazen and public levels. Medieval Christian depictions of Jews as physically deformed and financially manipulative of the world’s coffers have not disappeared. They have merely transferred faiths and are now openly associated with Muslim anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist language everywhere. No, we cannot hide behind a slogan of goodwill and ignore the attacks against our people at this year’s seder.
So if you are struggling with what to say at this juncture because of an existential disbelief that things can’t get worse, try this:
“God, Master of the Universe, please make this world safe for our people this year. Next year may we be in Jerusalem, but this year please take care of the Jews in our holy city and in so many other cities: in Marseilles and Copenhagen, in Argentina and Buenos Aires, Kansas and Seattle, Paris and Tunis, Sderot and Toulouse, Brussels and Donetsk. This Passover evening is a ‘night of vigilance’ [Exodus 12:42]. Please watch over us with divine care and compassion. Protect our sacred tombstones and graves from desecration. Protect our synagogues across the globe from Swastikas and shattering glass. Protect our innocent children on their day school playgrounds and our Jewish communal workers in embassies and community centers. Pour out Your wrath against the world’s injustices so that one day, You can pour out Your love. Ani Ma’amin — I believe that day will come. It is not here yet. Together, we will await that day. We will not wait passively. We will partner with you in a covenant to protect our people and remove them from harm’s way. And we will re-affirm in word and deed our daily commitment to justice, goodness and kindness.”
And let us say Amen.
Erica Brown is the author of “Seder Talk: A Conversational Haggada.” She writes the monthly Jew By Voice column for the paper.