By Rivy Poupko Kletenik, Jewish Sound Columnist
Try as I might, I cannot make my peace with the paragraph in the Haggadah that is recited right after the seder meal as we open the door for Elijah:
Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not recognize You, and upon governments that do not call upon Your Name; for they have devoured Jacob, and destroyed their dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your rage upon them and let Your burning fury overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them with anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Eternal (Lamentations 3:66).
Who are these nations? Anyone who isn’t Jewish? How does this feel to others? This seems hateful and spiteful and appears to fly in the face of our stance of “oseh shalom” — make peace — or “sim shalom” — give us peace. How can we reconcile it with the spirit of the evening of having been slaves and not wanting to perpetuate oppression and suffering in the world?
It is a raw passage. The Kasher Hagaddah ups the ante with the “Pour out Thy Wrath” passage preceded by photographs of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate of Auschwitz, the death camp of Treblinka, and a painting depicting a scene from the Spanish Inquisition. The author urges the participants to have the Holocaust in mind as they read the passage. This, my friends, is hard core.
That said, in context with the flow of the Hagaddah itself, your point is well taken. Few of us have not experienced some feelings of disequilibrium when reading something in our tradition that just doesn’t resonate with our present-day sensibilities. When this occurs, we must deal with it. Let’s delve. Let’s study. Where did this come from? What have others before us contributed to the conversation?
Though authorship of the Hagaddah is uncertain, it is generally attributed to the late Mishnaic period. This particular section of the Hagaddah is actually a later insertion added after the First Crusades of 1096 in the aftermath of the bloody decimation of the Rhineland communities. It first appeared in Vitry, the 11th-century French Machzor. That already tells us a story. The notion of pouring forth wrath is less a component of the story of the Exodus and more of a yearning for relief from later oppression. It serves as an introduction to the second half of the seder when the focus gently shifts from the Exodus story to the hopes for that which has yet to come.
When paying close attention to the text of the seder, you will notice that after the meal the emphasis of the evening moves from slavery and sadness to Elijah and eschatology. We transition from commemorating the past redemption to anticipating, and praying for, the redemption of the future. Symbolically, this passage is signaled with the eating of the afikomen, representing the future that has been concealed and hidden away.
Rabbi Marcus Lehman, from 19th-century Germany, goes to great lengths to demonstrate that we wish no harm to our gracious hosts in whatever lands in which we dwell — indeed, he reminds us that we are enjoined to bless them — as we actually do till this day in the form of the Prayer for the American Government.
In The New American Hagaddah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein observes that the anger of the ghetto ancestors was understandable. “Why not let powerless people have their fantasies of justice and revenge?” she asks. She goes on to talk about righteous anger: “The abolitionists were angry; the suffragists were angry; Herzl was angry; Gandhi was angry.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes that for a people so riddled with blood libels, “massacres, pogroms, forced conversions, inquisitions, confinement to ghettoes, punitive taxation, and expulsions, culminating, in the very heart of ‘enlightenment’ Europe, in the Holocaust. Yet these verses, two from Psalms and one from the Book of Lamentations, are almost the only trace left by this experience in the Hagaddah, the night when we recall our past.”
An idealistic yet haunting passage from 1936 by Yehiel Weingarten of Kibbutz Ein Harod urges us to not teach our children to hate, to even consider removing the paragraph from the Hagaddah altogether.
“There are people who love us and even those who hate us — but can we throw such harsh words at them?” he asks. “Yes, there is anti-Semitism even in our generation — but not so low that we would place such a hateful prayer before our children…It is possible to have mercy on our enemies, but to hate them?! It is impossible to hate them and surely impossible to also drag God in to the hatred.”
The mixed sentiments regarding this passage go back even earlier. We are not the first to feel a bit undone by the insertion. Here is this unique counter-addition found in the Worms Haggadah of 1521, attributed to the descendants of Rashi appreciating the help offered by righteous gentiles:
Pour out Your love on the nations who have known You,
and on the kingdoms that call upon Your name.
For they have shown loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob,
And they defended Your people Israel from those who would devour them alive.
May they live to see the sukkah of peace spread over Your chosen ones,
And to participate in the joy of Your nations.
It is based on a play on words. Your wrath in Hebrew is “chamatcha” — “cham” meaning anger, coming from the word for heat. Love might also be expressed using the same root, “cham” — as in warm regards, dash cham. So, instead of “pour out your wrath,” the poem would read cheimah, your warmth, your love. This addition is so heartfelt — why not incorporate it into your seder? And if your family has a personal story that involves the protection of a righteous gentile, this would be a perfect place to share it with your guests.
It seems we Jews are not so found of hating. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach writes that “there is a lot of evil in the world, evil that needs to be wiped out and eradicated. But you know what I am asking of God? Please God, if there has to be a wiping out of evil, let us not be the ones who are forced to do it. Can You find a way to destroy the evil in this world? Please, can You do it?” Amen.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy.