In the traditional haggadah we read the following prayer when opening the door for Elijah: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai!”
Added to the haggadah during the bloody Crusades, these words seem out of step with our modern, universal values. Even though we are sympathetic to the origins of this prayer, our liberal haggadahs have deleted it from our Seders. We speak instead about the messianic peace that Elijah will announce rather than the vengeance he might exact.
This week’s portion begins with a similar sentiment. Here it is not a prayer but a command. “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains or on hills under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
Again this appears contrary to everything we believe. Destroying non-believers and their places of worship contradicts everything we hold dear. How is this any different than what we witnessed at Milwaukee’s Sikh Temple? How is this different from those who read these words as a mandate to murder and destroy?
And yet we live in a time when suggesting we have no enemies is equally fallacious. Thus we are forever sandwiched between those who are unable to name our real enemies and those who see enemies everywhere and anywhere. Such is our challenge. There is great confusion about these issues. People too frequently treat those with whom they disagree as their enemies but extend a hand in peace to those who seek their destruction. We must fight against those who wish to destroy us. And we must refrain from denouncing those who disagree with us.
Our times need not be so confusing. Those who wish to destroy us, who revile the pluralism for which this country stands, are most certainly our enemies. We must not be afraid to say such words. Our world has real enemies. Does that make such prayers legitimate? Does that make such commands meaningful? Better perhaps we should pray for peace rather than vengeance while remaining forever on guard and vigilant.
We must also work to be sure that those with whom we have honest disagreements remain friends. We dare not confuse friend with enemy. Articulating a vision of pluralism and an acceptance of different worldviews is paramount. Let us be clear. When others advocate for our destruction they name themselves as our enemies. We must remain unafraid of saying so in clear and unmistakable terms.
Attributed to the medieval commentator Rashi’s disciples is a parallel prayer to that found in the haggadah. “Pour out your love on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms who call upon your name. For they show lovingkindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from who would devour them alive. May they live to see the sukkah of peace spread over your chosen ones and to participate in the joy of your nations.” Pray for peace. Remain vigilant.
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26) These indeed are today’s choices.