Thursday, April 05, 2012

Pour Out Your Wrath Upon the Nations!

Shefoch Chamoscha…! Pour out Your wrath upon the nations! So do we beseech of God after we drink the 3rd cup of wine on the Seder night just after we say grace, thanking God for the food we ate.

Some people make the mistake of using this prayer to show Judaism’s general antipathy and wish for Godly vengeance upon the non Jewish nations of the world. But this is not what this request of God means. We know that there are righteous among the nations and we would hardly want God to pour His wrath upon them. A careful reading of that phrase shows that it concludes with the conditions upon which we make this request. It is not for all non Jewish nations. It is for those that do not know God, and act in ways that are antithetical to His wishes.

The question nevertheless arises, why do we insert this prayer into the Seder? We are in the middle of an evening that evokes joy and a sense of freedom. The Seder is traditionally a night where families celebrate in a feast rich with meaning; filled with symbols of freedom from slavery and gratitude to God. Why this momentary interruption of an angry ‘shout out’ against Godless nations?

Immediately after this phrase we go back being grateful to God for bestowing miracles upon us thus leading us to freedom - in the form of saying Hallel.

Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests a possible answer. It is a demonstration of what a Jew does when he is confronted with feelings of enmity toward those who would do us in. We do not go on the attack. We instead verbalize our anger and frustration and rely upon God for vengeance. Those who verbalize their enmity are the least likely to act upon it. Those who acknowledge (as we do every Wednesday morning in Shacharis - Psalm 94:1) that “God is a Kel Nekamos – a vengeful God – are least likely to appoint themselves as the official executioners on His behalf.

To keep feelings of enmity and righteous resentment pent up is very unhealthy mentally. Without release, the poison builds up and it can destroy a person internally. We - the Jewish people have had centuries of persecution, humiliation, and indignities heaped upon us by the nations of the world that ‘Did not know God and act in Godly ways’. Without the annual release of anger as expressed in the phrase Shefoch Chamascha, the pent up anger and frustration would have destroyed us.

As is most evident on the night of the Seder, God does act on our behalf. We were freed from slavery in Egypt by 10 miraculous plagues directed toward our oppressors by the hand of God. And yet even as we recount those plagues one by one during the Seder prior to the meal, we spill out a little wine from one of the four cups to show that we mourn the loss of life even of our enemies.

At the very moment that we cry out Shefoch Chamascha, we open our doors to show our non Jewish neighbors how we lead our Seder. We talk of Godly wrath and yet we are at peace and friendship. We show our benevolence with the words Kol Dichfin – inviting all who are in need to come join us. We eat bitter herbs to remind us how bitter our slavery in Egypt was and yet make a blessing over those herbs. This teaches us the path of righteousness instead of vengeance. We begin the Seder with ‘We were slaves’ and conclude with the blessing of ‘(God) will redeem us’.

This is how a Jew reacts to feelings of enmity. The Seder teaches us the way of honor and humility and not the way of repression and retaliation towards our former taskmasters.

There is a lot we can learn from the Seder that should inform us all about how to react to enemies in our own day.

Adapted from The Royal Table by Rabbi Norman Lamm.