So the other night, at our congregational Seder, I was talking with a congregant who told me about an upsetting incident the previous night at his home. He had invited a non-Jew, a friend to the seder, which is a good thing. But when they got to the part about the plagues, this friend completely freaked out. How can you imagine such a punishing, such a vengeful and hateful God?! He asked. And so the rest of the seder was spent dealing with this one issue: how could God be so vengeful, so mean, and how could we find inspiration in such an angry deity?
It’s an issue that seems to come up in every crisis, and is great fodder for the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins among others, and it’s the issue of one of this week’s Holiday portions. The song at the sea and the destruction that builds up to it are recounted, and the song itself is triumphant and joyful. But is it vengeful? Indeed, one could see the plagues not as vengeance but as punishment: it was the soldiers of Egypt who drowned Israel’s boys, so now they themselves are drowned as an act of judgment. The plagues punishment for those Egyptians who accepted the status quo of Israel’s suffering rather than strive to alleviate it in some way. But our tradition does not celebrate the plagues, the death of the firstborn, or the drowning of Egypt in the Sea. Rather that celebration is deflected, mitigated. We pour out our wine and offer libation—libation!—to those who died in tormenting us. We read the Midrash and God’s rebuke of the heavenly court: “My children are drowning in the sea, and you sing praises?” Our tradition, unique in the world, does not celebrate the destruction of our enemies; we mourn their deaths, even today.
So let me ask this in a different way: what if God had intervened directly after the Holocaust? What if God smote 6 million, or even 11 million Germans, Austrians, French and Poles: those who perpetrated violence on Israel—as well as Gypsies, Gays, and other so-called ‘undesireables’—as well as those who were silent in the face of destruction. How would we feel today? Would we see that as an act of Divine Justice? Would we see it as vengeance, retribution, wrath poured out onto the charnel-houses of Europe? Is this a far-fetched question? Look at the way we respond to the Bombing of Dresden in World War II. If anything could be called an act of retribution, that would be it, but we tend not to take solace in that other conflagration. Rather, for the most part, we see it as a tragedy, more death and killing. We recognize the divinity of the victims. Yes, we sing praises of the liberators and the Righteous Gentiles, but we also pause and recognize the burning of God’s children.
We are unique of all Creation in that we strive for Justice. In calling for George Zimmerman’s arrest, the parents of Trayvon Martin were not asking for vengeance: they were seeking justice, for the case to be brought before the law. Heschel writes: Man is born to be concerned with ultimate issues. The Haggadah and these verses of Torah stand, as all prayer stands, to (again, quoting Heschel) overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. When we sing, “Mi Chamocha Ba’elim Adonai”—Who is like you among the Gods? We remind ourselves that divine justice—indeed, comprehension of God at all—is beyond any of us, and to ferret out God’s intent or reduce our own free will is to give in to the anguish within our own hearts. And while we desire justice and strive for justice—for it is through justice that peace is truly achieved—we still mourn the loss of life and the potential holiness of those lives, in our seders, in our Torah teaching and in our lives. To do otherwise is to fail to accept God’s challenge: to choose life.
Our Haggadahs are back on the shelf, the pesadik utensils back in the basement. But If we did our seders right, those conversations—especially those of controversy and those that challenge our relationship with God—still resonate, still haunt, still force us back again and again to revisit the argument, still drive us to tears. We must continue to ask the question that the child asks in Torah and our Seder: “why?” And continue to answer with patience, with understanding, and a healthy sense of our own limitations. When we do that, we become God’s witnesses, as Shimon Bar Yochai meant it: you are my witnesses, I am God; if you are not my witnesses, I am not God.“… In this world God is not God unless we are His witnesses, and without God, there is no Justice, nor compassion. Let us bear witness and bring Justice into the world, and mercy, and pour out our cups and hearts. Amen.