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What Lessons Can We Learn from the Haggadah this Pesah?

According to Sefer Hahinukh, it’s a positive commandment to rejoice on the three pilgrim festivals, as it is written, “and you shall rejoice in your festivals” (Deut. 16:14). This year, it is difficult to rejoice. Some 1,200 Jews, Arabs and foreign workers were murdered on October 7th, 260 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza, and 250 innocent people were taken hostage, of whom 134 are still being held prisoner by Hamas.

Even so, I believe there are six important insights which we can learn from the Haggadah about our current situation. 

The first is hospitality. At the very beginning of the Seder we declare: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” This sentence is based on the practice of Rav Huna (Babylon, ca. 250 CE) who declared whenever he broke bread: “Whoever is in need, let him come and eat” (Ta’anit 20b). Since October 7th, we have seen an incredible outpouring of hospitality in the State of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have welcomed strangers into their homes, baked and cooked food for huge numbers of soldiers, and brought food and clothing to the 250,000 evacuees from the north and south. This Pesah custom has now become a norm. We hope and pray that it continues.

The second lesson is Jewish Peoplehood. Many commentators have tried to figure out the difference between the Wise and the Wicked Sons. The Wise Son says: “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” (Deut. 6:20) – and we praise him. The Wicked Son says: “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26) – and we condemn him. However, in the Septuagint, an early midrash (Mekhilta Bo 18, p. 73), the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesahim 10:4, fol. 37d), the Vulgate, many Haggadah manuscripts and the Prague Haggadah of 1526 the verse in Deuteronomy says “has commanded otanu – us,” and not etkhem — you. In other words, the Wise Son is wise because he views himself as part of us, Klal Yisrael, the collective Jewish people, while the Wicked Son “excluded himself from the community.”

Since the October War began, millions of Jews have stood up for and defended the State of Israel — from 300,000 people at the rally in Washington to sending planeloads of equipment to Israel to raising over 700 million dollars for Israel Emergency campaigns. They are the Wise Son.

On the other hand, some ignorant and misguided Jews such as “Jewish Voice for Peace” and the director Jonathan Glazer have said lakhem, to you, and read themselves out of the Jewish collective. We must teach and convince Jews of all ages that they are part of us, so that they will all emulate the Wise Son.

The third lesson is Resilience. One of the most famous passages in the Haggadah is V’hee she’amda, which has become immensely popular thanks to a beautiful tune composed by Yonatan Razel in 2008.

The Haggadah passage begins: “Blessed be He who keeps His promise to the Jewish people” (Genesis 15:13-14), that Abraham’s offspring shall be oppressed in Egypt for 400 years, “and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” It continues: V’hee she’amda, “And this promise has stood for our ancestors and for us, for not only one enemy has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation, there are those who rise against us to annihilate us, but the Holy One blessed be He, saves us from their hand.”

The Haggadah Yisraelit, edited by Mishael and Noam Zion, proceeds to list 57 wars, pogroms and attacks against the Jews from slavery in Egypt to the Destruction of both Temples to medieval expulsions to Chmelnitzki to the Holocaust to October 7th. But why? Why have other peoples and religions been trying to kill us for 3,400 years? What have we done to deserve this perpetual chain of antisemitism which has resurfaced with a vengeance since October 7th?

On the one hand, we can take the passage literally.  Despite all of these attempts, God has always saved us and we have outlived all of our persecutors from the ancient Egyptians to the Babylonians to the Romans to the Cossacks to the Nazis — and so will we outlive Hamas.

On the other hand, we can view this as the secret of Jewish resilience. As Meir Ariel sang in his popular song: “We survived Pharaoh, we will survive this too!” Precisely because our enemies are constantly trying to destroy us for no reason, we will survive and thrive and flourish!

The fourth lesson is that vengeance comes from God. After Birkat Hamazon (The Grace After Meals) and before the second half of Hallel, we open the door and recite a series of four verses:

“Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms which have not called upon Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them with anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66).”

These verses do not appear in early Haggadot. They are first mentioned in France and Germany in the 12th century and slowly but surely spread throughout the Jewish world and the number of verses varied. Some medieval rabbis attempted to explain these verses, but it’s not at all clear why we recite them or why specifically at this point in the Seder.

Many have suggested that these verses were added as a reaction to Blood Libels, which frequently occurred on Pesah. Beginning in 1144, Christians accused Jews of using the blood of Christian babies to bake matzot, which is, of course, utterly absurd. The Jews of France and Germany therefore asked God to “Pour out Your wrath” on those who persecute us.

Since October 7th, a small number of Israelis have said that we should kill all of the Hamas terrorists as an act of vengeance. However, as I have shown elsewhere (Responsa in a Moment, Vol. 3, pp. 215-217), the word nakam or nekama appears 44 times in the Bible. Only three verses talk about human vengeance; in most cases, the Bible talks about vengeance that was taken or will be taken by God, not by human beings.

We are not fighting in Gaza as an act of vengeance. We are fighting there to free the hostages ands to make sure that Hamas will never again repeat the bestial acts which it performed on October 7th.

That is why these verses say: “Pour out Your wrath” — God’s wrath, not ours.

The fifth lesson has to do with our attitude towards Redemption.  In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua says: “In Nisan they were redeemed, in Nisan they will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11b). This is one of the reasons that the Seder begins with the Aramaic sentence: “This year here, next year in Eretz Yisrael” and ends with the words “Next year in Jerusalem!” In The Schechter Haggadah, I included next to the latter sentence an illustration from the famous Birds’ Head Haggadah written in Germany ca. 1300. Four men are pointing up at a walled city hanging over their heads which is labeled Yerushalayim, Jerusalem. This is based on midrashim which say that there is a Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, a Heavenly Jerusalem, which will descend to earth when the Messiah comes. One of the things we have learned from Herzl and Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion and Begin, Rabbi Kuk and Rabbi Goren is that we can no longer afford to wait for the Messiah and the Heavenly Jerusalem. With faith in God who gave us the Land of Israel some 3,800 years ago, we must continue to build the earthly Jerusalem and to defend the State of Israel from all those who wish to destroy it.

The final lesson is that we must remember the 134 hostages in the midst of our joy. The central midrash of the Haggadah includes the verse: “And we cried to the Lord, God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction… and our oppression” (Deut. 26:7). As we read this verse this year, we will be crying out to God to hear our voice and to see the affliction and the oppression of the hostages. The Midrash continues: “The Lord heard our voice”, as it is said (Exodus 2:24): “and God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” We hope and pray that God will hear the groaning of the hostages and, to paraphrase the Haggadah, “May He bring them forth from slavery into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption.” Ken yehi ratzon! So may it be God’s will.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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