Year after year at the seder all is going well, then — there it is — the paragraph that unsettles me every time, that dire dramatic pronouncement of deep Jewish pessimism: “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” Really? Do we need to be reminded? Why is this in the Hagaddah? Do we truly believe this? What kind of message is this for our children? This is not the Judaism I want to pass on to another generation. Yet there we are, holding a cup of wine in our hands proclaiming almost proudly, with gusto, “They’re out to get us!”
It is never fun to have our buttons pushed. This prayer is clearly bringing something up for you. Though it is not, thankfully, an everyday ordeal — it warrants some attention and probing. It’s reasonable to inquire about the heart of this challenging paragraph — its meaning and message, especially in the context of seder night.
Notice first that you seem most moved or disturbed by the middle line of the paragraph. The beginning and the end actually seem rather redemptive in nature.
Consider the text:
And it is this, that stood by our fathers and us; For, not only one alone, has risen up against us to destroy us, but in all ages did they rise up against us to destroy us; but the Holy One, blessed be He, delivered us from their hands.
The beginning is lofty and evocative of trust. The end point seems in fact to be comforting: God Almighty, no matter what, always saves us. It’s that middle line that makes us squirm. And if you really want to squirm — please, open the fairly new, artistic and edgy Hagaddah of Noam and Mishael Zion, “HaLaila HaZeh: An Israeli Hagaddah.” Here the prayer is illustrated by an artistic rendering of a varied sampling of cartoonish Jewish foes armed and in hot pursuit with a timeline hovering above it detailing, indeed, every generation.
The list is about as dismal and disheartening as one could hope for: 1400 BCE, Egypt; 722 BCE, Assyria vanquishes Kingdom of Israel; 586 BCE, Babylonian exile; 167 BCE, Antiochus; 70 CE, Rome destroys the Temple; 135, Bar Kochba; 484, Persia; 627, Kuriza; 629, Spain; 873, Byzantium; 992, Limoges; 1007, Egypt; 1096, First Crusade; 1141, Norwich, England; 1171, blood libel, Paris; 1189, Third Crusade; 1198, Yemen; 1215, edict of the pope; 1242, burning of the Talmud in Paris; 1248, Baghdad; 1281, Castille; 1290, expulsion from England; 1306, expulsion from France; 1348, black plague riots; 1354, Jerusalem attacks; 1391, forced conversions, Spain; 1475, Northern Italy; 1492, expulsion from Spain; 1495, expulsion from Lita; 1496, expulsion from Portugal; 1500, expulsion from Provençe; 1510, expulsion from Napoli; 1536, expulsion from Saxony; 1597, expulsion from Milano; 1648, Chmielnicki pogroms; 1736, Iran; 1840, blood libel, Damascus; 1865, Iran; 1871, Odessa pogrom; 1877, riots in Morocco; 1881, Ukraine; 1891, blood libel, Corfu; 1894, Dreyfus affair; 1898, Algeria pogrom; 1903, Kishinev pogrom; 1910, Buenos Aires pogrom; 1912, Fez, Morocco attacks; 1919, Ukraine pogrom; 1929, Hebron massacre; 1935, Nuremberg Laws; 1935, persecution of Polish Jewry; 1938, Kristallnacht; 1942, the Final Solution.
The artists and authors are making
a graphic point loud and clear — everywhere, every generation. Don’t even try to deny it, there it is, generation to generation: A full menu of Jewish torment. Ironically, at the time of its being written in the Hagaddah itself, back in the second century — this paragraph was far less menacing and knotty. Now, at the time of its reading, about 1,900 or so years later, we’ve gotten so many additional anti-Semitic pogroms and persecutions under our collective belt.
That said, this prayer is recited, with a glass of wine, salvation, in hand, and is meant to be a prayer of gratitude. What are we missing? What is its message?
Our paragraph is found in the section of the Hagaddah that offers an answer to the question asked by the children: Why is this night different from all other nights? We lovingly tell them our story. We were slaves in Egypt, we begin. But it did not start there. Our story goes way back to our ancestor’s family, to Abraham, who came from idol worshippers. Then there was a covenant. There would be the promise of a land, and the experience of slavery, and then freedom. This is what has stood by us. No matter what, or when, God saves us. This is our story. It is timeless and true. This covenant has stood by us. That’s one interpretation.
Rabbi Twersky suggests that what has stood by us — ironically — is this very stream of persecution. As in the aphorism “when it is good for the Jews it is bad for Judaism and when it is bad for the Jews it is good for Judaism,” this constant stream of persecution has stood by us. It has fortified us, made us stronger. Rabbi Lehman of 19th-century Mainz noticed we are a long-lasting people. Other nations from antiquity have faded away. Our fortitude to withstand suffering with the help of God has made us a people of endurance.
That cup of wine that we raise, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, represents our destiny. There will always be a Pharaoh. There will always be an Egypt, a drama. We are a lonely people. The Hagaddah is our eternal story, the Exodus a constant. We steadfastly take our cup of destiny in hand.
For Elie Wiesel, though, there is wonder about the veracity of our salvation — we are a people who have survived. For Shlomo Carlebach, we are the chosen people. He was wont to say, “Let’s not talk about killers, are they what makes me a Jew? Can you imagine how holy these people were? God meant more to them than life.”
Finally, the Lubavitcher Rebbe reminds us that within each of us is an enemy. It rises against us. It doesn’t allow us to be our best self. Enter God’s eternal unconditional promise: With it we can persevere against our inner challenges no matter how daunting, even when we must face them at the seder itself.
So we grapple with that which vexes us most. We consider and reconsider and notice our reactions to things that rub us the wrong way. Is there something in them to which we are drawn and yet afraid to face? For this prayer, that is no surprise.