06 April 2012

Wrath

"Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You and upon the kingdoms who call not upon Your name, for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his dwelling.  Pour your fury upon them and may your rage overtake them.  Pursue them with anger and obliterate them from under the Eternal's skies."

This collection of verses, sewn together by the Haggadah's editors at some point in the Middle Ages (likely in response to the Crusades which had decimated Jewish communities across Europe) is arguably the most difficult and objectionable section of the Haggadah.  Most commentators refer to this as an allusion to the hoped for arrival of the Messianic Age, Judaism's own version of apocalyptic visions. It is recited just after we pour the fourth cup of wine, understood to signify our national redemption.  Since we're suffering so horribly, the logic goes, come "pour out your wrath" and get them off our necks!

Tuesday evening, after I had finished interviewing our member Jonathan Safran Foer about his new Haggadah, a member of the audience approached me while Jonathan signed books and wanted to know why this collection of verses is still in our books.  "It's violent.  It's offensive.  It's vengeful.  It should be removed."  She was quite adamant.

While some editors have in fact removed it from various Haggadot during the past fifty years, I appreciate its presence.  Anger and wrath are not only common human emotions that many of us often struggle mightily to control, but for better or worse, they are Biblical manifestations of God's personality in the sacred literature.  One simply has to deal with it.  And for those who love and appreciate the complexity of ancient, epic narratives, the grandiosity of such expressions are fit to scale for the centrality of God's outsized personality.

The verses in question come from two distinct Psalms--numbers 69 and 79--as well as from Lamentations.  When one examines their origin, a different story emerges.  And this is precisely why we ought not edit things out so easily.  The Psalmist in both Psalm 69 and 79 is in fact writing from a place of deep spiritual humility.  He is beaten down by the yoke of oppression, an echo of descriptions which demonstrate distinct literary allusions to the historical events depicted in Lamentations:  Jerusalem's destruction, national humiliation in the eyes of the world, and the theological conclusion that God's desire was for Israel to suffer in order to teach them a lesson.  Both the Psalmist and Lamentation's author go further and agree to shoulder the responsibility of the suffering, agree to take it on and thereby strengthen their faith, so that at some future point God will reverse course and reward the Jews for their perseverance and loyalty.

"Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You" is an acknowledgment of humility, not a call for vengeance.  It says, in a moment of exhaustion, "enough God!" but is not a call to hit the streets with torches and weapons and carry out that impulse to anger and violence like a raving band of vigilantes.   "We will continue to suffer for the values you have entrusted to us," it claims, while also demanding at certain points in history, "Give us a break!  Pour out your wrath on them not on us."

A text for the strong at heart, for the one willing to take the punishment doled out by history, to understand its meaning:  at times, we suffer for a cause greater than ourselves but we are not ever meant to take to the streets ourselves and carry out acts of revenge.

Before you rush to judgement, consider the position of Jews at most stages of our history--our strength and ability to survive was not found in violence but in sacred texts, in words of prayer, in commanded acts of lovingkindness that were the fiber of community connection.

Even in American history, think of the great sacrifices made by other generations for the greater good--incomprehensible self-sacrifice during the founding of the nation; African American willingness to give one's life for freedom and the right to vote; periods of rationing during world wars; deep expressions of neighborly cooperation during the Great Depression; our most recently in New York, outpouring of cooperation we briefly saw after 9-11.

Finding strength in not lashing out; in allowing God that expression but not arrogating it to ourselves, is a bold and humbling act.

It's cliche to say so but the level of anger, hatred and violent rhetoric that is personally employed in our political discourse is, without question, out of proportion to the genuine contributions each of us make to truly better the world we live in.  It's as if our energy were more valuable when it's spent tearing each other apart rather than reflecting more rationally and saving ourselves for actionable items like eradicating poverty and hunger and human suffering.

"Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You."   Or, in other words, for those of us who truly know You--leave us alone to humbly serve you, to redeem the world.  And that rabble of trouble-makers off in the corner over there who refuse to speak calmly and play by the rules, close the door and throw away the key.  They'll take care of each other.  They certainly don't need me to stoop to their level and throw a few punches myself.

There's only so much brimstone, fire and blood a sane person can take.

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