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 murderous 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 echoes these sentiments and begins with a similar refrain. 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 from the hate filled words of the Hamas’ charter or the savagery of ISIS? How are our Torah’s words different from those who read their tradition’s words as a mandate to murder and destroy?
And yet we live in a time when suggesting we have no enemies is equally problematic. Thus we are trapped between those who are unable to name our real enemies and those who see enemies everywhere and anywhere. A.B. Yehoshua, a leading Israeli novelist, recently argued that this is in fact the crucial dilemma facing Israel. The failure to call Hamas an enemy rather than a terrorist state prevents Israel from confronting Hamas and its rockets and tunnels. The fight against terror is never ending. Confronting an enemy by contrast offers two clear options: negotiations or war.
Yehoshua writes: “Let us not forget: The Palestinians in Gaza are our permanent neighbors, and we are theirs. We will never halt the bloody destruction by talking of ‘terror.’ It will require negotiation, or a war against a legitimate ‘enemy.’" (“Israel Needs to Stop Calling Hamas a Terrorist Organization,” The New Republic, August 13, 2014)
Terrorism is a tactic. And the so-called war on terror is an unhelpful euphemism that avoids the challenge of naming our enemies. Only by naming our enemies can we truly confront today’s struggles.
Our times need not be so confusing. Those who wish to destroy us and proclaim it in such unmistakable terms, those 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? I recoil from these words. Better perhaps that we should pray for peace rather than seeking vengeance. Still we must remain 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. We must avoid euphemisms that confuse the moral challenge.
We pray: “May God, who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea to the Aravah, on land, in the air, and on the sea. May the Lord cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy Blessed One preserve and rescue our soldiers from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may God send blessing and success in their every endeavor….” (Prayer for the Welfare of Israel Defense Forces Soldiers)
Pray for peace. Remain vigilant. Fight against our enemies when they rise up against us.
Remain clear-sighted. Know who is an enemy. Remember who is a friend.