Heroic Passages in the Haggaddah
and Struggles of Liberation
By Michael Goldman, Coordinator of
WJCS Jewish Senior Programs
One of the most enduring and beloved virtues of the Passover seder is its almost limitless capacity to help us grapple with the liberation struggles we experience in our own lives. The seder and its starter-dough, the Haggadah, have an almost uncanny way of resonating with our present circumstance, both spiritually and politically, intimately and globally, giving us both a frame to help us to articulate the nature of the struggle, and a great deal of encouragement in continuing the fight. Some story or prayer which last year we mumbled through seems this year to be illuminated.
I am writing this in mid-March, as the war in Ukraine enters its third week. By the time you read this—who knows how many cities there will have been leveled, how many refugees will have fled? And worse. I know that this year, the Haggadah’s more martial and heroic passages will resonate deeply with me and with others: images of G-d sweeping Pharaoh’s army into the sea.
The Haggadah is written the way it is, in order to help us give voice to the righteous rage we feel at those who wage unjust wars. We need to harness that rage to go into battle against tyrants. So, this year, let’s get in touch with that rage.
But we also need to work hard not to let that rage flare out of control and turn into hatred. The Haggadah can help us here, too. Many traditional haggadot contain the following midrash (rabbinic riff on the Bible), attributed to the talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan (Megillah 10b):
When the angels saw Pharaoh’s chariots dashed into the sea, they opened their mouths to sing songs of praise to God. But God silenced them, saying, “My handiwork, my human creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing a song of praise?”
The story is there to remind us not to forget the humanity of the combatants sent into Ukraine. You may have seen pictures of some of them, taken as prisoners of war. Most are boys—seventeen, eighteen—with skin pocked by acne and shrapnel, with dazed and hapless expressions. It may be a tall order for us to file these images in our minds alongside the images we have seen of Ukrainian children and grandmothers. But that is what the Haggadah is essentially asking us to do: to humanize our opponents, not to demonize them, even as we hold them accountable for injustice.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it like this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
WJCS offers an array of Jewish programs. To learn about them, go to: https://www.wjcs.com/services/jewish-programs/