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Sh’foch Chamatcha: Justice, Not Vengeance


Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name; for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his dwelling. Pour out Thy fury upon them, and may the kindling of Thine anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from under God’s skies.

Powerful, frightening, “awe-ful” words.

During the Passover Seder, Jews the world over open the doors of their dwellings and speak these words to God, with the nations as their witness; these words that upon a simple read cry out for God’s vengeance upon those who have harmed us and, by harming us, have demonstrated their lack of understanding of the God of Creation.

For too many Jews, the recitation of the Passover Seder is a backward-looking tradition; a recitation of past events and miracles. For them, it does not speak to modern times and experience. To their ears, the beautiful b’chol dor vador … is little more than a lovely melody.

But for God’s people, the past is never only the past. It is always prelude. The words of the Haggadah speak in the present tense, never just in the past. B’chol dor vador is never simply a lovely sentiment; never just a romanticized notion of the “chain of our tradition.”

Those who fail to take seriously the truth of b’chol dor vador or who deny the Pharaohs of their own day are made uncomfortable by the power and passion of the Sh’foch Chamatcha. During the Victorian age, it was condemned in the London Jewish World:

[A]re we still, on each recurrence of the festival which celebrates God’s compassionate love of His people, to pray to the Supreme, “Pour out They wrath upon the heathen…”?

Are we bound to repeat these and such like imprecations, aimless, purposeless, meaningless in our mouths, which gushed from the lips of our ill-used predecessors which such deadly earnestness? Must our prayer-book continue to be defaced by passages which should never have found entrance therein? Are our children to learn from us that prayer to God for mercy may be accompanied by hysterical entreaties for revenge – bloodshed, fire and destruction – on foes long passed away? In a word, must Jewish worship in the nineteenth and each succeeding century remain stained and disfigured by the blackest fruits of the dark middle ages?

These words cast the Sh’foch Chamatcha as immoral. Were these powerful and passionate words truly out of place in the Victorian Age? In our modern world? Has the world truly turned from those “dark middle ages”?

If so, are the words of b’chol dor vador equally as misplaced?

Let us not ever forget that for the Jew, past is never simply the past. If any Jew would forget that truth, perhaps it would be wise for him to consider approximately twenty minutes of one day in one year in one place.

The time: about a month before Passover 2008. The place: Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem, a yeshiva founded by the great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. The Jews: yeshiva students following the example of this gentle, brilliant scholar and leader, immersed in their studies.

8:36 p.m. – A gunman enters the yeshiva and opens fire indiscriminately.

8:36 – The first phone call is received by Magen David Adom from a student inside the building.

8:37 – The first ambulances are sent.

8:40 – The first police car arrives at the yeshiva (the officers do not enter the building).

8:41 – The first paramedic on the scene reports of one person wounded.

8:42 – IDF Capt. David Shapira enters the building.

8:45 – Shapira and Yitzhak Dadon, a part-time student at the yeshiva, exchange gunfire with the terrorist.

8:57 – Magen David Adom operator reports an “end of shooting” and orders medics into the building.

Twenty minutes. In a mere twenty minutes, a scene of scholarship becomes the scene of death and destruction. Eight students are dead. Eleven more are wounded, five in serious-to-critical condition. The perpetrator, a young Muslim, is killed.

Twenty minutes.

The past becomes present. Again.

There is a teaching in Judaism that each life is worth the whole of creation and when that life is lost, so too creation.

Twenty minutes. Eight innocent students.

B’chol dor vador.

The mother of one of the students, sixteen-year-old Avraham David Mozes, said, “God picks the most beautiful flowers for His garden. He sees him as an angel, and we should thank Him for the privilege of raising him for sixteen years. Sixteen years of purity and integrity and kindness.”

What would our Victorian writer say to Avraham’s mother? Would he still decry the “hysterical entreaties” of the Sh’foch Chamatcha? Would he recognize the stains of the blackest fruits in those twenty minutes?

How are we, mere human beings, not to cry out for vengeance in the face of such cruel actions? How can we not cry out to God, “Pour out Thy wrath…”

Yet, if we do, we, like the Victorian writer, would be missing the deeper lesson of the Sh’foch Chamatcha. That the words of the Sh’foch Chamatcha are a pained and passionate response to the cruelty the world has inflicted on our people is clear. Each instance of this cruelty, however, quickly becomes a mere historical event. A temporal footnote.

Like the tragic medieval events and circumstances that prompted the rabbis to include the words of the Sh’foch Chamatcha in the Haggadah, they are not enough to provide the theological foundation for later generations to pause in the midst of the Seder and beseech God to “pour out” His wrath upon the nations. Even that these events occur b’chol dor vador is not sufficient theological justification.

Sh’foch Chamatcha is not an expression of vengeance but of justice and geulah. After all, geulah is a fundamental theme of the Haggadah and of Passover. What we know is that geulah did not and will never recur without the full and unqualified belief of the Jewish people that God punishes the wicked. Our morality finds its first voice in Abraham’s words (Bereishit 18:25). “Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?”

The Gaon of Vilna made clear that it is not our higher hope that the wicked suffer but that the righteous prevail. The righteous cannot prevail until the wicked are consumed or, perhaps more correctly, until wickedness is eradicated and the wicked perform teshuvah.

After the defeat of Amalek – the prototype of the nation and people “that know Thee not” – God promises Moses, “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven” (Shemot 17:14). God’s promise is eternal. It stands not only for the Amalek of old but for all those who follow Amalek’s methods and tactics, all those who attack the rear guard – the weak, the aged, the women and the children.

It is sensible to hope and pray that God will punish all those whose goal is to humiliate and defeat the Jews for no reason other than our being the Chosen People. We do not, however, seek God’s punishment against those who “know Thee not” through active revenge. We are a people of peace and of justice. We do, however, place our faith in God and pray to Him, the One who does proclaim that “vengeance is mine” and who, in due time, will “pour out His wrath.”

On Shabbat, we pray to the God of Mercy, to Av Harachamim, to recall with compassion, “the devout, the upright and the perfect ones; the holy congregations; the hundreds of thousands of martyred Jews who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Name.” We do not pray for the strength to avenge our martyrs with a sword. We do not pray for the weapons to bring destruction upon our enemies. We are not motivated to repay murder, destruction, and violence with murder, destruction and violence.

No. We pray to God that, in His own time, He will choose how to atone for the innocent blood of His servants. We believe with perfect faith that the Avenger of blood will remember them. Life. Decency. Integrity. These remain our goals and our ideals.

Yet decency and integrity demand we pray fervently and trust that He may, “before our eyes, exact retribution for the spilled blood of His servants” and fulfill His vow, “O nations, sing the praise of His people for He will avenge the blood of His servants and He will bring retribution upon His foes; and He will appease His land and His people” (Devarim 32:43).

To do less would be to turn a blind eye to our brothers’ suffering and the loss of innocent blood.

Yes, God will avenge the suffering of his innocent people. Vengeance is not, however, our primary goal. Redemption is. Our faith is that God will vanquish the wicked so that we will be redeemed. What more appropriate time to express this trust and faith than on Seder night, the Layl Shimurim, the night of watching? On this night of geulah, when the Jews of Egypt were guarded and shielded from harm, Jews of every generation, b’chol dor vador, will also be watched and guarded.

We open our door not to voice vengeance upon the nations but in the full faith and expectation of redemption. Our trust and faith in God the Redeemer is unshaken and unshakable. And God flowers His garden with justice.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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