William Hamilton

Those are big promises

As we settle into our seats for our Seder evening, we feel unsettled by history’s reversals. So many challenges are deepening. Mental wellness. Economic uncertainty. Public safety.

There are lots of worthy efforts to diagnose and solve today’s problems. Still, a friend reacted to one particular remedy last week with the words, “Well, those are some big promises.” As we open the Haggadah tonight, we meet the biggest promises of all time. Liberation. Redemption. Freedom’s way. How shall we try to make these promises our own?

Clues come from our posture. Reclining is the posture of freedom that the meal calls for. The 4th of the 4 questions makes this clear. Tradition teaches us to lean (left) as we drink the four wine cups and eat the matzah. Yet we need to be wary of our leanings in life. Excessive leaning can cause us to tumble over. As writer George Elliot notes, “we fall on the leaning side.”

All week long I’ve been struggling with the origin of the Haggadah passage that describes every generation’s confrontation with those who inflict destructive harm on us, known as v’hi she-amda. I’ve wondered, ‘Why does the text introduce the Hebrew word amad, to rise up?’ It’s an unusual verb choice. Initially, I was comparing it to the word aliyah which invites a more spacious and gracious ascent. Then it hit me this morning, the posture of standing up (amda) applies to promise keeping. The God who made a promise to Abraham, sustains that promise in every generation, for all time.

Promises are not kept by reclining. Promises are kept by standing up with action, by rising to mission, to meet challenges whenever and wherever they’re faced. Again, it’s about posture. We customarily raise our wineglass as we recite this passage.

Big promises encourage us to stretch. The key is not despairing when chilling reality puts divine dreams on hold. We’re always on the verge of their realization.

All year long we pray that our needs will become God’s concern. This night is different from all others because we actively hope that God’s dreams will become our needs.

“We’re optimistic” said a free woman in Colson Whitehead’s compelling book, The Underground Railroad. “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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