Angry Words at Our Passover Seder

Passover is my favorite holiday. What could be better than being together with family and friends, eating wonderful food, asking questions, and telling stories, the stories of our lives interwoven with the story of Yitziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt? The Hebrew word for Egypt means "narrow place." The Exodus story, then, is more than a narrative about what we describe as a historical event; it is the metaphoric story of a political, psychological and spiritual process of liberation. We were once slaves, we tell ourselves...and now we are free. The way things are is not the way they have to be.

We tell our story through the ritual of the Seder, the words of the haggadah and the questions we ask and try to answer. But in my family's Seder, there is a prayer from the traditional haggadah that we don't read. It makes me uncomfortable because it is so angry and vengeful.

"Shfokh hamatkha: Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that don't know You and upon the families that call not on Your name; for they have devoured Jacob. They have devoured him and consumed him, and have laid waste his habitation."(Psalms 79:6-7) "Pour out Your wrath on them; may Your blazing anger overtake them." (Ps. 69:25) "Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord." (Lamentations 3:66)

This text doesn't appear uniformly in haggadot until the early medieval times when blood libel charges made Passover a particularly dangerous time for Jews. It is recited after the meal, just as we open the door to welcome Elijah the prophet, whom tradition tells us will announce the coming of the messiah.

Why recite it when we open the door? And why do we open the door at the end of the Seder and not at the beginning when we invite "all who are hungry to come and eat with us"? Some scholars believe that it used to be recited earlier, but it became too dangerous. Adversaries watched the Seder proceedings early in the evening, trying to "prove" the blood libel. But later at night, it was less likely that the ceremony was being watched, so only then was it safe to open our door, and only then was it safe to vent our anger.

What is the point of venting anger? The historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt explains:
"Clearly this paragraph makes some people 'uncomfortable' because it seems to defy the Seder's universal themes of freedom and liberation. I, however, love it. Why the infatuation? Simple: I always picture the many beleaguered Jews, particularly but not only in Europe, for whom Passover, with its proximity to Easter, was a dangerous time. I imagine Jews who spent much of the year, not just Passover, fearful that the non-Jewish world might turn on them in violence and they would have little recourse to protect themselves. Suddenly, for one short paragraph, they opened the door of their homes -- of course it was at a moment when most of their non-Jewish neighbors had already retired for the night -- and publicly told them and the whole world just what they wished for them. For one brief moment they could let their desire for justice be heard publicly. They did not have to cower in fear. They did not have to accept whatever was dealt them because they were powerless to respond. Those thirty-two words constituted the one moment during the year when they unambiguously could give voice to their feelings of pain for the torment they and previous generations had endured."

Giving voice to the pain, noticing the desire for revenge, but not acting out of the anger, what could that teach us? We could ask the same question about Purim when we read the Book of Esther, the tale of a planned genocide against the Jews which ends with a fantasy of retaliation against those who wanted to destroy us. We are taught about Purim that we are to remember what our enemies planned to do to us, to remember and yet, at the same time, to blot out the memory. Psychologists teach us that victims of abuse need to first recover their memories of victimization; then, in order to heal, they need to blot out the power those memories have to control their lives. The first step is to tell the story, to open our eyes to the truth that there are people who would hurt us, who would hurt other people. Remember, and remember as well, that the commandment is to blot out the memory. The mitzvah is not to take revenge, and not to become those very people whose memory we seek to blot out. At the end of the reading we say a blessing: "Blessed are you, God, who takes up our grievance, judges our claim and avenges the wrongs against us. You bring retribution on our enemies and vengeance on our foes."

As I look deeper in the troubling Shofkh hamatcha, I see the same teaching: vengeance, should it be necessary, is not in our hands, but in God's. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has an illuminating insight: "Jews did not seek to take vengeance. That is something you leave to God." He goes on to suggest that the most violent forms of religious expression emerge out of traditions where God is depicted as nonviolent, but human beings are violent in the name of God. This is not what Judaism demands of us.

A classic midrash makes the same point when it tells the story of God informing Moses that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land because in his rage he killed an Egyptian. Moses retorts: "I kill one person in my anger and You punish me in this way? You have killed thousands in your anger!" God responds: "Yes, but I can resurrect the dead. Remember, when people act out of anger, the consequences can never be changed."

I don't believe that God resurrects the dead, but I love the story and the teaching it conveys. Acting out of rage is destructive and wrong. Still, sometimes, in a safe and ritual way, it is important to tell the story. Just speaking the words is enough. Neither I nor God need seek revenge.

This year Shofkh hamatcha feels particularly important. The front cover of the April edition of The Atlantic depicts a broken Star of David, with the headline of Jeffrey Goldberg's article "Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?" This past Yom Kippur Forum at my synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, featured the French Consul General speaking on a panel about anti-Semitism in France. Local and national newspapers reported the story of a Jewish student judicial candidate at UCLA who was challenged as to whether being a Jew would make it difficult for her to be unbiased in her deliberations on campus issues. This is not anti-Zionism; this is anti-Semitism. I am angry. I want to vent my anger... and my fear. I want to say "Shfokh hamatkha."

Shfokh hamatkha reminds me to pay attention to the hate that exists in the world, against us, and against others, but because it is said as we open the door for Elijah, it reminds me not to let the fear that hate evokes cloud our vision of what we are called to do to redeem the world.

Reading these words as we open the door reinforces that the central message of Passover is one of liberation and redemption, not of revenge either by God or by us: "in every generation it is incumbent on each of us to look upon ourselves as though we really had come out of Egypt, that narrow place." Yes, we were once slaves; yes, horrible things have been perpetrated against our people (and other peoples); yes, in our lives there are often narrow places. And yes, the exodus from this narrow place remains a promise and shapes the work that is upon us to do.

So this year at my Seder, we will read this text as we open the door for Elijah. And we will share our feelings, our questions, our fears and our hopes. And again, this year, as every year, we will follow the tradition of Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz; we will pass an empty cup for Elijah, inviting each Seder participant to add wine from his or her cup, symbolizing that redemption can only come when we work together. And as we add our wine to that cup, we will remember that the way things are is not the way they have to be.