On Passover, the Jewish people are created anew as we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. We are reminded time and again that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt and escaped because of the goodness of God and the leadership of the prophets. The ceremonial Seder meal is our tool for collective catharsis and connecting to our religious origins.
The observance of Passover has changed over time to ensure that each generation of Jews understands the renewal of people and faith to be its own. Animal sacrifices at the central Temple in Jerusalem millennia ago assumed symbolic forms as eggs and shank bones. In response to widespread messianism in Europe during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Prophet Elijah and prayers for return to the Holy Land made their debuts. And as a result of oppression during portions the Middle Ages, a rancid piece of liturgy was added to the service.
Even in the more progressive My People's Passover Haggadah (Passover prayerbook), the section on "God's Triumph over Evil" reads:
Pour out Your wrath on the nations who do not know You and on the countries who do not call upon You. For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour Your anger over them, and let Your fury overtake them. Pursue them in fury and destroy them beneath Adonai's sky.
When we read this section at our Seder this year, there was a collective wince at the table -- not so much from our gentile guests but our Jewish ones. Could our religion, our people, ever wish something so terrible on others? My wife quickly jumped in to explain the historical context, that this is what an oppressed people would yell to vocalize its pain.
I knew intellectually that she was right, but the lines seemed so misplaced, so terrible. On a holiday of freedom, one in which we also reflect on the pain that the ten plagues caused the Egyptians and take wine out of our glasses to reduce our joy accordingly, it seemed unfitting to wish ill upon others. So I followed up on my wife's insightful remarks more simply: "That's true... But these are ugly words."
These ugly words may not have offended my gentile guests and may have even been overlooked by my Jewish guests after another glass of ritually mandated wine. But with the understanding that it is in every generation that we go from slaves to free people and recommit ourselves to a Jewish life and Jewish morals, "God's Triumph over Evil" should be excised from the Passover Seder entirely.
Once we were slaves to the oppression in our past. Now we are free to learn from it.
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