In Every Generation: How the Pesach Haggadah Sheds Light on Israel’s Security Situation
The ancient words that we will soon recite during the Passover seder can seem archaic or impertinent to our modern-day circumstances. How can the Haggadah, a document assembled so many hundreds of years ago, inform our understanding of the threats facing the Jewish homeland, as well as the strengths in her arsenal?
In fact, a close reading of the text can illuminate our seemingly unique circumstances and place us squarely in the lustrous pages of the Jewish people.
Toward the beginning of the Maggid section of the Haggadah, we read: “And this promise is what has stood by our ancestors and us; for it was not only one man who rose up to destroy us: in every single generation people rise up to destroy us.”
Indeed, as with countless times throughout Jewish history, it would be easy and justifiable to subscribe to this worldview. Just as Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasizes these realities with fierce determination, we know that much truth lies within. The International Criminal Court continues its witch hunt against democratic Israel, and equates the acts of a sovereign power obligated to defend itself against Hamas, a morally bankrupt terrorist dictatorship. The messianic Iranian regime continues its march to the nuclear bomb as Israel worries whether her staunchest ally will back her up, or run back to the fatally flawed provisions of the nuclear accords. Mainstream media channels across the world push a modern-day blood libel, and accuse Israel of withholding a life-saving vaccine from its Arab population. We could be forgiven for thinking that the words of the Biblical book of Numbers remain true, that we are a “nation that dwells alone.”
It would be easy to find solace in the timeless words of the Haggadah at the end of the Passover seder as we implore God to “Shfoch chamatcha — Pour out Your rage upon the nations that do not know You…” Of all peoples, the Jewish people have had every right to wish for divine retribution against our many enemies. And yet, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z”l) once said, the Haggadah distinguishes itself in its restraint. Even with all of the atrocities inflicted upon the Jewish people, this is one of the very few sections that asks for divine revenge.
Why? Because that is not who we are at our essence. Sacks cites a unique addition placed next to these words in a 16th century manuscript from Worms, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Germany, flipping the meaning on its head: “Pour out your love on the nations who have known you…” This supplication on behalf of all the righteous gentiles throughout history accompanies us to this day in many editions of the Passover Haggadah. At its essence, it represents a perfect encapsulation of the Jewish spirit of innovation. As a people forged through the cruel crucible of history, we know that the Jewish people have always turned curses into blessings. A tiny country, surrounded by enemies committed to her destruction, schooled in hatred and war from its inception, names its national anthem, HaTikvah — The Hope.
Again, the Haggadah comes and teaches a profound lesson in compassion and mercy. Look at some of its most famous words shared at every seder table: “B’chol dor va’dor — In every generation, a person must view himself as if he himself left Egypt.” As with so many pearls of Jewish wisdom, this statement encompasses the tension in so much of Jewish history — between the particular and the universal. On one hand, we place ourselves in the footsteps of our ancestors, feeling their pain, solitude, and oppression. In so doing, we promise to uphold and defend the State of Israel. Never again, will our people be left so vulnerable and alone. On the other hand, however, in placing ourselves in their footsteps, we also promise to embrace the universal cry for freedom, no matter from where it originates. For this reason, Jews have always stood on the front lines of others’ calls for freedom. Moreover, we resist the urge to demonize the “other” — for instance, the Iranian people in their own struggle under the yoke of a tyrannical regime.
The Haggadah is so revolutionary precisely because of its resounding calls for empathy. This is the distinguishing feature of the Jewish people. Unlike countless other ancient civilizations relegated to the dustbins of history, we do not respond to events with knee-jerk impulsivity. Rather, we leverage our unique circumstances and strengths in our thousands-year-old partnership with each other and the divine. As this pandemic slowly subsides, and as the threats to Israel continue to loom, may this forever be so.
Natan Trief is a publishing Adjunct at The MirYam Institute. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a double major in Spanish and History. Natan served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier specializing in search and rescue. In May 2015, he received a Masters of Hebrew Literature, and, one year later, his rabbinic ordination.
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