Pour Out Thy Wrath

This entry was posted in Holidays, Texts on by .

Over at Contentions, Hillel Halkin has posted a thought about one of the Passover Haggadah’s most difficult texts: shfokh hamatkha, in which we ask God to pour divine wrath upon the nations that do not know God.

Writes Halkin:

I would counsel those Jews who are embarrassed by the shfokh hamatkha to reflect that, precisely because it’s a prayer for divine and not human vengeance, it’s more an abjuration of vengeance than a call for it. In fact, the salient thing about Jews in terms of vengeance is not — as the anti-Semites would have it — how vengeful they are, but rather, how incapable of taking revenge they seem to be…

I myself have never had any problem with the shfokh hamatkha. I say it loudly and cheerfully. The Jews and Israel have plenty of enemies, and I wouldn’t mind them all dropping dead tomorrow; as for the rest of humanity, my friend’s daughter-in-law included, I wish it nothing but the best. I’m glad, though, that thoughts, especially my own, can’t kill. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in the wish for vengeance. But its implementation is best regarded as God’s business. That, I should think, is the philosophy of the shfokh hamatkha.

Halkin makes an interesting theological move here. He spiritualizes vengeance — removing it from the practical human realm — by stressing the fact that only God is the avenger. While this may make the text more palatable for Halkin, it doesn’t necessarily make it fundamentally less problematic.

Halkin may not believe that it is our job to enact vengeance, but certainly there are some religious folks out there who could take this text as a call to arms. Must Halkin think of those people when he decides to recite this text “loudly and cheerfully”?

There are, of course, several other options. One could recite the text solemnly, aware of its power, humbled by the truth that we do have enemies, disturbed that we could sometimes use a little divine wrath, and hopeful that one day we won’t.

Then there are the alternative texts, some of them listed in this MJL article, including this one from a 16th Century Hagaddah (though, in all likelihood, the text was added in the 20th century):

Pour out your love on the nations who know You
And on kingdoms who call Your name.
For the good which they do for the seed of Jacob
And they shield Your people Israel from their enemies.
May they merit to see the good of Your chosen
And to rejoice in the joy of Your nation.

Posted on April 5, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

3 thoughts on “Pour Out Thy Wrath

  1. Michael Satlow

    This year we used the haggadah “In a Different Voice,” and I was struck yet again by the excerpt “Pour out Your Love” reprinted there (but only in English, at least in the edition I was using). The essay to which you link, by Prof. David Golinkin, is very interesting, and makes what looks like a compelling case that the excerpt is a modern forgery. So why do you preface the passage by giving it a 16th century provenance? Are you not convinced by Golinkin’s argument?

  2. Ross Hyman

    “Halkin makes an interesting theological move here. He spiritualizes vengeance — removing it from the practical human realm — by stressing the fact that only God is the avenger.”
    The idea that God is the only legitimate purveyor of violence has deep biblical roots. In God’s initial call to Abram, God blesses and tells Abram to be a blessing but the only cursing is to be done by God.

    Here are some examples from Genesis is the only legitimate purveyor of violence. All of these examples occur within stories that use extensive sexual imagery. Perhaps our fixation on sex has prevented us from focusing on what these stories are saying about vengeance. I have taken these examples from http://vineandfigtree.blogspot.com/ where I have been blogging a nonviolent Torah commentary.

    1) One interpretation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is that it signifies the ability, reserved for God alone, to use evil means for good ends. In human hands, “knowledge good and evil� becomes the distorted worldly wisdom of leaders who form military alliances, use capital punishment, and enslave the people to accomplish their ends.

    2) The people of Babel sought to transcend the boundaries between heaven and earth and usurp God’s role, to both bless and curse in God’s name. The story of Babel is a transgression between heaven and earth in sexual terms since the tower can be thought of as a giant phallus designed to pierce the firmament.

    3) In the flood story, it is the members of the divine court who seek to mate with humans. In the story of Sodom, humans seek to mate with the divine. Intercourse between human and divine is symbolic of the sin to transgress the boundaries between heaven and earth. The frequent reference to judging in the story indicates that the transgression is that the people usurped God’s role and insisted on playing the judge and not leaving vengeance for God.

Comments are closed.