In his dvar Torah for Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat just before the start of Passover), Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom calls on us to remember the universalist aspects of the Passover Haggadah. In what concrete ways can we ensure this aspect of Judaism is honoured in everyday life in Israel?
By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom
Prime time for sermons on the Jewish calendar is twice during the year: on the Sabbath before Passover (“Shabbat Hagadol”) and the one before Yom Kippur (“Shabbat Shuvah”); it is therefore a great honor to be invited to address the themes of the holiday, but rather than address the heavy themes of slavery and freedom, as did Aaron Samuel Tamaret in his timeless essay, here’s a little nugget: two pulses of inclusive universalism in our otherwise very particularist traditional Haggadah.
It’s surely understandable that the story of the exodus include mention of Israel’s suffering under slavery, and, (gulp), the violent redemption by God’s hand. But those of us returning to the Haggadah after our festive Seder dinner find a jarring curse from the Psalms, aimed originally against the pagans, that has been invoked since the Middle Ages against Israel’s tormentors beginning with “Pour out Your wrath on the peoples that know You not.” Some modern Haggadot replace this with an alternative version from 1521 which is attributed to Rashi’s grandson:
Pour out your love on the peoples that know You, on the kingdoms who declare Your name, because of the good they do with the descendants of Jacob as they defend Your people Israel from those who would devour them. May they dwell in the sukkah of Your chosen ones and rejoice in the joy of Your people.
But even this blessing does little to overcome the accumulating negativity against the Other throughout the Haggadah.
Already at the very beginning of the Seder we find:
You separate between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations (from Havdalah recited after the Kiddush when the Seder falls on Saturday night)
But most damning is the prediction/promise that in every age “they” are ready to wipe us out. To cap it off, when we read the last chapter of the Hallel (Psalm 118) we come across “All the peoples surround me, in the name of God I cut them off.” Having stated so clearly that it’s “us against them,” it is therefore refreshing to find a most inclusive blessing as we finish the meal and thank God for nourishing us:
You are blessed, YHWH our God, everlasting King of the world, who nourishes the entire world in His goodness, with graciousness, with kindness and mercy. He gives bread to all flesh, for his graciousness is everlasting. And in His great goodness, never are we lacking nor will we ever be lacking food forever, for His great name, for He is a nourishing and providing God who benefits all, and prepares food for all His creations which He created. As it is written, ‘You open Your hand and satisfy all life lovingly.’ Blessed are You, YHWH, who nourishes all.
For those of us who learned this blessing with our mother’s milk, who sang it at summer camp and youth group activities, and on into our adult lives three times a day, its content and beauty may have long since been buried under our automatic recitation of it. Under initial inspection, it may seem wordy and repetitious, but further, careful analysis discloses word play (“olam” as forever, describing God’s rule as well as God’s caring, past, present and future, and “olam” meaning the world, God’s and ours), but most importantly, seven repetitions of the root “kol” (all), to emphasize inclusivity. As we thank and bless God for the meal we have just consumed, we are conscious of and thankful for God’s nourishment of all creation. Moshe Halbertal, a former teacher of mine called this paragraph “the perfect prayer,” and its recitation at the Seder to offset the combative particularism of the Haggadah could not come at a better moment.
What do we have in mind when we close off our Seder chanting “next year in Jerusalem”? For some, it’s the hope of making a pilgrimage, as commanded in the Bible. For those remembering the recurring destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, there’s the unspoken wish for the rebuilding of the Temple and even the restoration of animal sacrifice, including and especially that of the pascal lamb (probably not a wish shared by many who are reading this now). And there is the political perspective held by many that the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is best fulfilled and guaranteed by Jewish sovereignty over part or all of Jerusalem and by its continued rebuilding, even expansion.
When the pendulum of our minds and hearts swings this far to the right, it’s right for us to recall that “next year in Jerusalem” is also proclaimed at the end of Yom Kippur. The liturgy of that day of awe also deals with the Temple, its rituals and its destruction, but it includes mention of Isaiah’s hope that one day, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Bearing in mind this universalism, our celebration of Jewish life in Jerusalem and our vision of the future are not complete as long as all those who share the land with us do not have free and easy access to Jerusalem, and cannot thrive in it, individually and collectively.
Israelis ask each other as Passover arrives “where are you for Seder?” Hitting an adjacent key when typing the question in Hebrew produces “where are you during the curfew?” If we’re not asking that question, especially if there’s no one we can ask that question of, it means that we haven’t removed all the hametz from our lives, and possibly aren’t even aware of its existence.
May it be a true festival of freedom for all!
Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom is a member of Rabbis for Human Right