The Pesach paradox: aggression and ambivalence
Hol Hamo’ed Pesach
April 11, 2012
On the concluding days of Pesach we again read of the deliverance of the ancient Israelites. But despite the good news of redemption, there remain subtle yet palpable ambivalent emotions surrounding some of the most essential ideas in this story.
A primary dynamic of Pesach can be found in the ambivalence the tradition embodies around feelings of anger and aggression that the story of the Exodus calls forth. As we read in Exodus 15 of the salvation of Israel and the simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians, these contrasts become vivid.
When we read the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) we note that there is no ambivalence on the part of the poet: “Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea…. They went down to the depths like stone…they sank like lead in the majestic waters…. Who is like You among the celestials, Adonai?” We sense no moral ambiguity, no emotional self-consciousness, no measure of regret at the utter destruction of the enemy.
And yet later rabbinic tradition cannot rest content with this text as it stands. The rabbis who created the Haggada, defined the ritual requirements of the seder, and crafted midrash to explore and expand the Exodus narrative found ways to domesticate this unrestrained celebration of the destruction of the enemy.
An example: When at the seder we recite the 10 plagues, it is required that we remove one drop of wine from the cup for each plague. Insofar as innocents suffered as the price of our going free, our celebration is diminished; we cannot consume a full cup — or so go most happy humanistic explanations in modern Haggadot.
The tradition of removing drops of wine as a nod in the direction of innocent Egyptians gets ratcheted up a notch in the midrash that is also often cited in modern Haggadot, namely, that at the very moment the Israelites passed through the sea and the Egyptian troops (surely these are not innocent Egyptians) pursued them, it happened to be the time of day when the angelic choir began to sing praises to God. God silenced them, and the midrash imagines God saying, “My creatures (i.e., the Egyptians) are drowning, and you would sing?”
But there is a different version of this midrash, one not often quoted in modern Haggadot, in which the angels commence their song of praise at the moment the Israelites are up to their necks in the Red Sea. It is at that moment that God calls out, “My creatures (i.e., the Israelites) are drowning, and you would sing?”
If there is one place in the seder where anger, aggression, and ambivalence most clearly converge, it is at the point where, following the meal, the door to the home is opened. Both the locus and the focus of the first Pesach is the doorway, the boundary that separates the circle of protection inside the Israelite dwellings from the destroying force that is ravaging Egypt. In order to ensure safety, the door must remain closed; no one may leave, no one may have contact with the outside world; the boundary is solid, not permeable. God himself ensures, by way of placing Himself in each Israelite doorway, that no one, human or quasi-divine, will enter and threaten the inhabitants.
One aspect of that first Pesach survives in our seder ritual. If only for a brief moment, we again turn our attention to the doorway. In traditional Haggadot, this is where we recite the verses beginning “Shfoch hamat’cha al hagoyim” (pour out your [divine] wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you). In liberal Haggadot, this is where we sing “Eliyahu Hanavi.” In conservative Haggadot, we do both.
Somewhere between the aggression and anger of “Shfoch hamat’cha” and the hopeful messianic anticipation of Elijah, the ambivalence of Pesach and the imprecision of its message can be found.
Pesach is about expressing and recognizing the paradoxes, dilemmas, and conflicts of our personal and communal and historical existence — but it is not about their resolution.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.