02 Apr Pessah: How far we’ve come
My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of links to articles about how bad things are for Israel and Jews around the world these days. I’m not denying that there are some rather significant challenges around the world for Jewish communities and, of course, for us here in the Holy Land. But I do believe that Passover is a time for celebrating liberty and freedom both as individual and as part of the Jewish people.
Four has long been the typological number of the Passover Seder – four cups of wine, four questions and four children. Below are four images from the Gross Family Collection that I’d like to offer as possible inspiration for those of you celebrating your own seder this year.
1) “Compared to What” – One of my favorite tunes growing up (as an aspiring jazz/blues tenor saxophonist) was Les MacCann and Eddie Harris’ “Compared to What” from the Album “Swiss Movement”. I’m not entirely sure that I understood this cut, which captured the raw excitement of the Montreux Jazz Concert, but it was kind of an anthem for a 14 year old relativist. Those words ring in my ears when I see the image below, taken from a haggadah published in Amsterdam in 1662:
Here are close up of both images:
I’m not sure if this was intentional, but the juxtaposition of these two scenes, of the brutal slavery endured by the Israelites in Egypt on the right and the a sumptuous seder meal being served on the left offer the reader a chance to contemplate just how much better things have become. This was true for Jews in 17th century Amsterdam and is certainly the case for Jews all over the world (yes, even in certain countries where our sisters and brothers still suffer) today. I do not deny that there are Jews who are persecuted across the globe. I’m only suggesting a little historical perspective.
2) Civility – For close to five hundred years, the Four Sons have been depicted in illustrated haggadot in a variety of ways. For many of us, it wasn’t until Noam Zion and David Dishon published their groundbreaking interactive haggadah A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah in the late 1990’s that we fully appreciated in just how many forms these four archetypical students were shown. I bring just one of these images from the Gross Family Collection, from a haggadah printed in Amsterdam in 1837:
The wicked son is often portrayed as a soldier or thug of some sorts, but here, second from the right, he is depicted as a caveman. Beyond an immediate reaction of humor, this stands out to me – especially as of late, as so many vilify those with whom they disagree – as a lesson in rhetoric. Civility and respectful dialogue, simply toning it down, seem to be rare commodities these days. The Passover seder is a wonderful opportunity to exemplify a better type of discourse.
3) If your enemy falls do not rejoice (Proverbs 24:17) – a well-known midrashic tradition teaches us how to treat our enemies after the battle is done:
The Praised Holy One does not rejoice when the enemy falls …the ministering angels wished to break out in song [when the Israelites crossed the Sea] but the Holy Praised One rebuked then and said, “The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you wish to break out in song?! (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b)
While this specific tradition sees God in a far more universal fashion than that which we find in the Hebrew Bible and in other parts of rabbinic literature, it seems that the artist in the image below didn’t buy into this approach. The Israelites, were quite orderly as they passed on to dry land, are smiling and one can almost hear them as they burst out in song.
However, a rather wide-spread custom has served throughout many centuries seems to be intent on teaching us to imitate God as described in the Talmudic passage above. Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov, in his haggadah explains it so:
It is customary to spill a drop of wine from the cup upon mentioning each of the ten plagues since in this way we show that our joy has been lessened and that it is not whole due to the fact that our salvation came at the expense of the punishment of other human beings … and so it is written “If your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (Prov. 24:17)
Whether it’s a victory on the battle field or the results of democratic elections, perhaps we all need to curb our enthusiasm, at least a bit.
4) To pour out anger or love? – For generations Jews suffered just about everywhere around the world, one of the final sections of the haggadah – also, the latest additions the seder text from a historical point of view – is devoted to expressing the pain of suffering and a desire for revenge by asking for God’s anger to be poured out upon the nations. There are different traditions, some with more, some with less, biblical text presented as a petition, though all of them include this passage from the Book of Psalms:
Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know You, on the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. (79:6-7)
This part of the haggadah often features – as in the example below – an image of the Messiah riding on a donkey, being announced by Elijah the prophet who is blowing a shofar.
The message is, of course, that at the end of days, when the Messiah is upon us, God will punish all those who made trouble for the People of Israel. Some might call this justice, others might say revenge. Many liberal Jews have deleted this part of the seder since at least the 1960’s. And, in recent years, instead recited a 15th century poem which begins “Pour out Your love upon the nations” found in an innovative Israeli haggadah, Hatza’a Laseder – Masoret v’Hidush (p.105), a group effort of the Hamidrasha at Oranim, edited by Shai Zarchi.
This changed has been challenged this year by Erica Brown in a piece she published recently in the New York Jewish Week, entitled, “Pour Out Your Love? This year’s anti-Semitism must have a place at the seder table”. I encourage you to read what she has to say. But I respectfully disagree with her approach.
For me, Passover is a time to celebrate the positive aspects of our existence as Jews on this planet, whether enjoying our own liberty, or the contribution our tradition has made to others in this matter. For those that need to vent their anger, I’d suggest doing so on Purim. But for this holiday upon us, for the evening of the seder, I’m going to learn from my friend and teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader who is quoted as saying “The most important instruction for the Seder night is – lean back. Recline. There are enough other times in life when you have to lean in…”.
I’m going to lean back and appreciate just how far we’ve come.