The liberation we desire

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This time of year I am reminded of my dear friend, Gladys Kapstein z”l, who used to serenade her friends at Hillel board meetings with “I love Pesach with a Passion” to the tune of “I Love Paris in the Springtime.” And I share those same fond sentiments regarding this Holiday of Freedom. Of all the Jewish festivals, Passover holds a special place for me and many of us, with its emphasis on the quest for freedom and the home-centered nature of the seder.

The Passover seder invites wonderful participation, including quirky rituals like passing matzot, banging scallions on our neighbor’s head, reclining while

we eat and drink.  There are

the well-known and much beloved melodies of The Four Questions, Dayenu, Hallel, Had Gad Yah and of course sumptuous meals featuring family favorites.

But not all parts of the Haggadah (the telling of the Passover story) are joyous and light. For years, I have struggled to understand the passage that comes right before Elijah’s Cup, “Pour out Your anger on the nations that

do not know You…for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation?” What is this vengeful passage doing amid this story of redemption?

When we diminish our cups of wine for the Ten Plagues, I often quote the beautiful midrash (Torah interpretation) about the ministering angels bursting into song at the Sea of Reeds and God rebuking them, saying, “My children are dead on the shores of the Sea and you want to sing?” 

So, how does “pour out your wrath” square with this sentiment?

Chaim Raphael, a 20th century Jewish scholar, suggests that the four biblical verses of this section of the seder reflect “the terror which often hovered in the air among the Jews at Passover time because of the monstrous ‘blood libel’ and pogroms.” Opening the door for Elijah broke the spell for a moment of the happy gathering around the seder table, reminding the participants of the fearful world outside.

 Whatever the reason for their inclusion, I want to suggest that cultivating a spiritual practice might help us better deal with fear that often unleashes challenging thought, violent behavior, and perhaps even this vindictive passage in the middle of the seder.

In spiritual practice, we speak about the experience of interconnectedness and how a regular practice of prayer and meditation can help us cultivate greater capacity for forgiveness and compassion. We often see this as a corrective toward judgmentalism, which, while not a uniquely Jewish trait, is certainly honed to an art form in many Jewish circles. Many of us have experienced how painful that judgment can be and strive to be gentler with ourselves and others. We seek a kindness in response to suffering, not vengeance. It is inspiring to read of God’s grieving for the dead Egyptians, even though they were the instigators of our slavery and our oppression.

But judgment is also a divine attribute. The balance to chesed, or loving-kindness, is din, judgment. Judgment is necessary for justice to flourish. Cruelty should have consequences, not just for the victim, but for the perpetrator as well. The cry at this point in the seder comes from the heart: “We are still living under oppression! We need justice!” Some of us who know firsthand what it is like to be terrorized by another, understand the righteousness of this plea.

It is a paradox. Yet, it seems to me that the spiritually grounded goal is to develop the ability to demand justice while remaining connected to the essential truth: at our core, we are indeed all children of The Holy One. Even those people we despise, even those we fear, even those we regard with contempt. On some fundamental level, we are not separate from them. It doesn’t mean that we must acquiesce to them. But it means that we might try to see the me’at tov, the little bit of goodness in them that is a reflection of divine goodness.

It’s a tall order. But perhaps if we were to catch glimpses of that truth, it might lead to the true liberation we all desire.

RABBI ALAN FLAM leads the Soulful Shabbat Project, a Renewal Minyan that utilizes silence, gentle yoga, chanting, davening and Torah study as the backbone of worship. Soulful Shabbat meets in Providence bi-monthly for Shabbat worship, and for High Holy Days at Temple Emanu-El. Rabbi Flam is past president of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and an active participant in the RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. He is a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater RI and has served on the boards of the Dorcas International Institute, Economic Progress Institute and United Way.