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.
I would counsel those Jews who are embarrassed by the shfokh hamatkha to reflect that, precisely because itâ€™s a prayer for divine and not human vengeance, itâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t mind them all dropping dead tomorrow; as for the rest of humanity, my friendâ€™s daughter-in-law included, I wish it nothing but the best. Iâ€™m glad, though, that thoughts, especially my own, canâ€™t kill. Thereâ€™s nothing to be ashamed of in the wish for vengeance. But its implementation is best regarded as Godâ€™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.