Pour Out Your Wrath/Love

Sermon: 8thDay of Pesach, Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz


Pour Out Your Wrath/Love

What do we do with anger? 

Anger is an important and defining emotion in the Hebrew Bible and we might be inclined to recoil from it. The Israelites get angry, Moses gets angry, God definitely gets angry. In our contemporary politeness, we may not always know how to meet that anger and there may be a real philosophical disconnect between the source of anger and its expression. 

God identifies as ‘El Kana’, a zealous God, and this may only layer onto our discomfort with the notion of anger and retribution. What human behavior merits God’s wrath? I suspect all of us here would reject such toxic theology outright.

We scrub and sanitize our texts or obfuscate their meaning. But how intellectually honest is it? Meanwhile we sit with the anger radiating off the pages of our tradition. By ignoring or dismissing anger, we are not examining its sacred mechanism. Just like in the human psyche, anger has a purpose in our Scriptures. It may very well benefit us to examine it.

On this last, 8thday, of Passover, that fury lies on thickly in Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea. Often, we will focus on this most ancient heart of the Torah as a source of beauty as snippets of this text has made it into our liturgy – ‘ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi lishuah’ (God is my strength and my song, God will be my salvation), ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ (who is like You among the gods, Eternal?) and ‘Adonai yimloch le’olam va’ed’ (the Eternal will reign forever). The verses we prefer to ignore are those that talk of the destruction of the Egyptians, stating that ‘the Eternal hurled the Egyptians into the sea… not one of them remained (Ex. 14:27-28). The imagery is harsh: ‘sus v’rochvo ramah bayam’ (horse and rider He hurled into the sea), ‘yemincha Adonai tiratz oyev’ (Your right hand, Eternal, destroys the enemy), ‘tishlach charoncha yochlemo kakash’ (You send your hot anger, it consumes them like straw). The Song of the Sea continues this litany of fury, as God terrorizes Israel’s neighboring tribes, striking fear and trembling into the hearts of the Philistines, the Edomites, the Moabites and Canaanites. 

Some of this litany of fury has transferred into the Haggadah, where many contemporary and liberal editions have cut it out. It is a passage found towards the end of the Seder where traditionally, the ‘Sh’foch Chamat’cha’ prayer would be said: ‘Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You.’ At the moment when we are supposed to focus on our Redemption and the salvation of the entire human race, we parallel it by a indignant, violent text. 
In context, the text makes sense, just like the context of Shirat haYam must have made sense, lost to us in the grey mists of history. During the unparalleled cruelty of the first Crusade of 1095, the devout Jewish communities of the Rhineland were decimated. How can the heart not form and the lips not speak such words?

Is there any merit to us speaking those words today? Are these words a troubled historical artifact or a harbinger of darker times? What does speaking that kind of anger say about us and do for us? 

In full disclosure, I’ve been contemplating the place of anger in Judaism as we witness the rise of anti-Semitism. Old prayers may fill a need to purge old hatreds. 

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Anti-Semitic incidents in the USA increased almost 60% between 2016 and 2017 – the biggest increase in the last forty years. This disturbing spike included 1986 incidents in 2017, including vandalism and physical assault, spread across all 50 states. This surge in hatred climaxed in the Charlottesville white supremacist march last August. Right now, there’s a vigorous and vicious debate in the British Labour Party about systemic (and frequently ignored) anti-Semitism in its ranks and the failure of the leadership to uproot it. Like in the USA, the UK has seen a sharp uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. 

According to the Community Security Trust, a charity that secures the Jewish community, the Jewish community in Great Britain is being targeted at a rate of nearly four times a day. 1382 Antisemitic incidents were recorded in 2017, including a recent one at a synagogue in Leeds that I would frequent. In Europe, reports are even more alarmist, including in my native Holland where a kosher restaurant (where I once was a regular) and other Jewish institutions were attacked. In France, the constant grind of anti-Semitism has recently met its grisly apex in the brutal murder of Mirelle Knoll, an 85 year old Shoah survivor. 

As we bear witness to these, we are charged with the emotionally and spiritually complex task of holding contradictory impulses. On the one hand, as we inch closer to Yom haShoah, we must draw on our collective historical memory. We are called to be on guard and make space for our anxiety and anger. We do not have to pretend this isn’t happening, we do not have to pretend we are not dismayed. We do not have to deny the impulse to say, as an echo of our liturgy, ‘sh’foch chamat’cha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha’ – ‘pour out Your wrath unto the nations that do not know You.’ (Psalm 79:6). 

At the same time, we are in the civilizing framework of Pesach. The Pesach story is not just a revenge fantasy against our oppressors: it is a call to a higher ethic, to the sanctity of human dignity and the sensitivity to empathize even with the lot of our enemies, drawing out callousness and cruelty like we draw out the drops of wine with our fingers during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. We are charged to be thoughtful, not reactive, to be zealous in our pursuit of justice, not quick tempered in our prejudice. It is a hard balance to strike, to be real and to be compassionate. To defend the borders of our community while remaining committed to the open tent of Avraham Avinu. 

Fortunately, anger can be transmuted and the unique voices in our tradition offer us another way. Half a millennium later, at the other end of the Medieval Period, the Worms Haggadah (written in 1521) gives us this text:

“Pour out Your love on the nations who have known You,
and on the kingdoms that call upon Your name.
For they have shown loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob,
And they defended Your people Israel from those who would devour them alive.
May they live to see the sukkah of peace spread over Your chosen ones,
And to participate in the joy of Your nations.” 

May we face the challenges of our times with clear-eyed courage, with the wisdom of the ages and trust in the future, but most of all, with the love and compassion for all of humanity that our tradition instructs us. Anger can be instructive, it can be formative and it can be cathartic. But as our Festival liturgy teaches us in the Thirteen Attributes of God’s compassion, mercy and tenderness, only love can truly guide us. 

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