A Controversial Paragraph From the Traditional Haggadah
By Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant
וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנו; שֶׁלֹא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד, עָמַד עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, עוֹמְדִים עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם
Vehi She’amda, La’avotainu Velanu Shelo Echad Bilvad, Amad Aleinu Lechaloteinu Ela Sheb’chol Dor VaDor Omdim Aleinu Lechaloteinu V’HaKadosh Baruch Hu Matzilenu Miyadam.
And it is this [the covenant that the Holy One made with the patriarchs; and whose perpetual effectiveness was convincingly demonstrated by His bringing upon ancient Egypt the ten plagues, thereby facilitating the freedom of the Hebrew slaves]. For not only once was there someone to rise up against us to try to destroy us; but in every generation there are those who rise up against us to try to destroy us; but The Holy One, Blessed Be, [consistently intervenes] to save us from their hands.
This is the collective cry of a people that has been oppressed and discriminated against throughout its history as it is expressed in this pithy phrase in our traditional Passover Haggadah (and, contravening its ominous import, misleadingly often sung as a playful children’s tune). A people left physically and psychologically scarred. A people that feels justice for them has been too long delayed. This is our story, told as one long pogrom, as the verbal and physical abuse of Jews occurred in Czarist Russia; (see my piece on Liberal Resistance: https://usaunify.org/liberalresistance/israel_unlearned_lessons/).
It is a passage that reinforces the sense of the Jews under perennial siege all the way from biblical mythology to modern history. From the tribe of Amalek trying to thwart the slaves’ escape from Egypt (in Exodus 17, it is described that Amalek led a band of thieves in the desert to attack the stragglers of the escaping Hebrew slaves – the young, the old, the sickly and weak; later, Joshua, under Moses’ direction, battled against Amalek and his followers, which ended in their utter defeat; perhaps some thirteen centuries later – yes, past hurts can be nurtured and remembered for centuries! – Haman, a descendent of Amalek, planned his revenge by implementing the genocide of the Jews of Persia as narrated in the story of Esther, which tale serves as the basis for the the holiday of Purim (see Liberal Resistance for my piece: https://usaunify.org/liberalresistance/author/rabbi-yeshaia/ ). This could easily have served as a precursor of Adolf Hitler’s near success in making the European continent ‘Judenrein’ (Cleansed of Jews).
In a rabbinic passage in Mishnah, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), though there are alternate interpretations of a comment by the son of Azzai (Avot 4:2), מצווה גוררת מצווה; עברה גוררת עברה I choose this one: One mitzvah – a single benevolent act perpetuates another; one averah – a single malevolent act perpetuates another. We must exercise extreme caution regarding which consequences our actions might tend to perpetuate.
It’s not difficult to understand why it is believed, as the above phrase from the Haggadah unambiguously states, in every generation someone will rise up against us to destroy us. Our history is replete with repression, persecution and mass murder for over two millennia. No wonder, then, that this historic memory has become indelibly stamped upon the Jewish psyche; this theme is repeated each year, at Passover, the most widely observed Jewish festival.
However, if any of us seriously embraces the myth expressed in the last part of this problematic phrase – “…that in every generation divine intervention [unfailingly] saves us from those wishing to take us down” they’d be hard put to explain Auschwitz etc. etc.
Additionally, there is a negative fallout from believing that “…in every generation…some one will seek to annihilate us.” Many Jews are now convinced that they are the eternal victims, never to be fully integrated into the wider society. This belief helped to propel 19th century political Zionism, spawned by Theodor Herzl in his book, Jewish State, into the 20th century Jewish mainstream. Zionism wrapped together a religious longing for spiritual and physical redemption with a nationalism bearing the banner of rightful ‘Return’.
The world will never accept us, was the Zionist conviction, so we must have our own state in our own land where we can live in security and normalcy. Disregarding the rights of those who have lived on this very piece of land for centuries, the needs of the incoming Jews had been considered greater, their story more compelling, and the biblical promise more ancient and, therefore, more dominant than the civil rights of those previously dwelling on the land.
In our post-Holocaust, Israel-centred Jewish consciousness, the ‘Every generation…’ passage has continued to grow in significance, eating away at our moral sensibility. So much so, that we have difficulty understanding modern Jewish history and politics without constant reference to this paradigm of oppression and threat, or, as it is now more often described, ‘Security’.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel (who has just succeeded in winning a fifth term as Prime Minister – despite credible charges of corruption and bribery brought against him – to become the longest reigning Prime Minister in modern Israel’s history) happily tapped into this with his demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ thus, relegating Israeli Christians and Muslim Palestinians to the status of second-class citizens; and making even more remote the possibility of achieving the rights of Palestinian refugees; threatening to annex the West Bank, thus hammering the final nail in the coffin for any possibility of a two-state solution; and pushing further beyond the horizon the chances of the Jewish state, itself, becoming truly ‘Jewish and Democratic’.
Every American administration, because of powerful lobbies on behalf of Israel, has failed to challenge the same “In every generation…” mindset and so found themselves acting as Israel’s partner rather than as honest brokers of peace. As I have written elsewhere (see https://usaunify.org/liberalresistance/ilhan-omar-vs-the-aipac-lobby-davida-and-goliath/), the once troublesome issue of dual loyalty to both countries – Israel and America – that for more than a century had brought into question the patriotism and loyalty of the American Jew, has now become a necessary component for a congressional member of the United States congress – no matter his or her religious persuasion – to qualify for committee membership, due to the powerful pressure of Israel-centered lobbies – AIPAC, especially. Ironically, in some circles, having dual loyalty to both the United States and Israel has now become the hallmark of a loyal and patriotic American!
What should be a more pronounced theme in the Passover Haggadah and, indeed, a more enduring part of the Jewish psyche is expressed by ‘Let all who are hungry, come and eat…’
And yet, do we really go out and find hungry people to feed? Admittedly, we let the words affect our inner lives, but do we act them out in real time? Do we search for hungry people to share the Pesach meal. Or does our empathy remain merely a work of imagination, its ethical impulses confined to the theater of the seder night?
What keeps many of us from actually inviting into our homes the poor, hungry persons – and not just at seder-time? Perhaps we’re concerned for our safety within our own homes. But equally likely, we may fear confronting the gap between the hungry person’s reality and our own. What happens at the end of the night? How do we say, “Thanks for coming” to someone who has no bed to go to? And if we do invite them to stay the night, how do we make sense of the moment when we tell them they’ve outworn their welcome? Or even if they’re not homeless, but simply hungry, how do we justify not inviting them back whenever they need a meal? Or do we wait only for next year’s Passover before extending an invitation.
As I had written for my own family’s Haggadah of last year in regard to the plate of matsah held aloft: “This is the lechem oni, the bread of the poor and afflicted, accompanied by the pronouncement, ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat.’ Then I continued, ‘We need not look to distant shores to find the impoverished laying their heads on burlap bags beneath bridges; cold breezes blowing brazingly over their scantily clothed bodies while these afflicted and forsaken poor attempt a much needed night’s rest.’”
I concluded that invitation with this appeal: “Rather than concerning ourselves with clearing our houses of all chametz – leavened foods made from the forbidden grains – for these eight days of Passover, far better it would be to clear our towns and cities of poverty, famine and disease – the ‘chametz’ of the modern age – not for eight days, only, and not just for a year or two, but forever.”
In Hebrew, the word for ancient Egypt is Mitzrayim. The same word can also be translated as ‘the narrow place’. According to the classic text on Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” (mi, “from,” tzar, “narrow” or “tight”). When we escaped slavery in Mitzrayim, we supposedly extricated ourselves from the place of constricted opportunities and narrow-mindedness. Yet, today many of us are living our lives within a narrow nationalist or tribal mentality or even in a self-centered, narcissistic outlook, or rather, in-look.
Each of us continues to live in our own mitzrayim, the external or physical narrow straits of lusting for wealth, possession or power; or other forms of emotional and psychological straits to which we often subject ourselves. Like the duality in virtually all of Passover’s symbols, they work in two ways: they turn us into both slaves and oppressors or even apathetic bystanders.
A new Exodus is needed to set the Jewish mind free, and open the imagination to those that suffer at our hands, including ourselves – we sometimes can be our own worst enemy. The theme embodied by “In every generation…” must be understood anew.
It must be claimed for the same Jewish spirit that invites the hungry and oppressed to share at our table. We must see that in every generation, even among ourselves, the narrow vision of ‘Pharaoh’ can rise up within ourselves. Our task is is to redeem and free ourselves in order to uphold a moral universe. This year – we remain trapped in the narrow place. Next year, may we find our new Exodus to liberation.
It also states in the traditional Haggadah:
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יֶָָצֶָא מִמִּצְרַָים , שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יי לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרַים . לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם , לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשָׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵנוּ.
In every generation one must look upon oneself as if he/she personally has escaped from Egyptian bondage! For it is written [in the Torah]: “And you shall tell your child on that day [at the Passover Seder] the following: ‘It is because of this [the covenant, the unbroken commitment] that Adonai gave me that enabled my escape from Egypt. So it was not only our ancestors whom The Holy One, redeemed [from slavery], but also each of us was also redeemed.
However, there is a danger lurking in this sentiment. It comes precariously close to feeling one belongs to the especially chosen few. What of those who are not so fortunate as to be among the ‘chosen’? This insidious view of exceptionalism is not unique to Jews. But wherever it exists, it is implicitly demeaning to others.
So what can this notion mean for us in this day and age? That we are to behave not as one tied to some form of enslavement, not merely the blatant forms, but also the ones having greater subtlety. For instance, the various forms of addiction; becoming anchored to the latest ingenious electronic device; disempowering ourselves by yielding to the control of others. Challenging as it may be, we must recognize that our individual freedom from enslavement is an ongoing task; and, further, we must continually remind ourselves that no one is truly free until we are all free!
Yeshaia Charles Familant grew up in Philadelphia. He took his undergraduate degree in Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, did a two-year stint in the army, as a draftee between the years 1955-57. The Korean War, by then, had concluded with a shaky truce. Familant saw no action. Instead, graduated from Radio and Cryptography School at Ft Jackson, SC and later became an instructor there. He then transferred to the Information and Education Center at Ft Campbell, KY, where he taught English and Mathematics.
After his discharge, he attended the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati where he received his MHL (Masters in Hebrew Letters) and Rabbinic Ordination degree. Familant was awarded a fellowship to Oxford University, England where he studied Philosophical Linguistic Analysis. On returning to the states, he held the position as Executive Director of the Hillel Foundation at Stanford University for ten years, from 1965 to 1975. He taught accredited courses on various Jewish subjects, including modern and biblical Hebrew, history, Jewish mystical writings (Kabbalah), literature of the holocaust, modern Jewish authors.
On leaving that position, Familant took the examinations for a California license as a Marriage and Family Therapist and, subsequently, co-founded the Counseling Center at the San Andreas Health Center – a holistic health center. In his semi-retirement years, he continues to do part-time counseling and psychotherapy, along with writing on various topics, including his memoir. Known for his progressive views in religion politics and health, he has been a vegan long before that word became used in common parlance. He has resided for over a half-century on the left coast.
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