Pour out your wrath by Steve Miller

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 15 April 2019

Shabbat shalom.

It’s Shabbat Hagadol – the great Shabbat.  It’s a day when the Jewish world is united– Orthodox/Progressive, Ashkenazi/Sephardi, Israel/Diaspora – one factor will unite the vast majority of sermons today. There will be a joke about how long the sermon is going to be.

We all know that the Pesach Seder is an amazing piece of immersive theatre.  It has its villains and heroes, it has songs, it has special effects and ghostly spirits, and it has an interval.

Depending on what kind of Seder you attend there is one particularly dramatic moment in the second half.  We have just thanked God in Grace After Meals, and we are just about to praise God in the Hallel Psalms. We throw the door open and we say the following …

Sh’foch  chamat’cha  el  ha’goyim…

Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge You, and on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.

Pour out Your indignation upon them and let Your fierce anger overtake them.

Pursue them in wrath and destroy them under the heavens of the Lord.

These biblical verses have the same ability to cause us discomfort as the latter chapters of the Book of Esther.  I said that whether you actually hear these words depends on what kind of Seder you attend.  Some of us – including those using our Reform Haggadah – simply remove these words, or replace them with something entirely different. For some of us who include the traditional

words it helps to understand the historical context – they are a late addition to the Haggadah, inserted at a time during and after the Crusades, when physical persecution was the regular traumatising experience of Jewish communities across Europe.  Others re-frame the text theologically. By stressing that the text implies that only God can be an avenger it removes it from the human domain – but this doesn’t really get us very far from the idea of vengeance.

Some people, including at our family Seder, say the traditional words but accompany them with an additional text asking God to,

Pour out Your love on the nations who have known you…

Whatever you do at your Seder this text begs important questions – most importantly about our relationship with those who are our actual, or perceived, enemies.  It is about tribalism– who is us, who is the other – how do they feel about us and how do we feel about them.  I’d like to reflect on this question of enemies for the next few minutes but with some boundaries.  I am thinking mostly of groups and communities in non-violent conflict.  These thoughts are not about extreme violence about which other things need to be said, although you may find that some of these thoughts are relevant; and they are not really about conflict between individuals although, again, you may find that some of it is relevant.

Sadly we live in a world in which there is no shortage of examples of hatred, blame and tribalism which expresses itself, for example, in nationalism, in politics, in religious zeal including intra-religious conflict – I am sure you can imagine many other examples that flood the press and social media.

Roy and Judy Eidelson identify five beliefs which propel people towards conflict:

First, the idea of superiority – an enduring conviction that he or she is better than other people in important ways.

Secondly, Injustice. The perceived mistreatment by specific others or by the world at large.

Third. Vulnerability. A person’s conviction that he or she is perpetually living in harm’s way.

Fourth. Distrust. The presumed hostility and malign intent of others.

And fifth. Helplessness. The conviction that even carefully planned and executed actions will fail to produce desired outcomes.

I think these are helpful insights into the basis of hatred, prejudice and superstition (as we phrase it in the Reform translation of the Aleynu). But, does this get any closer to finding solutions?

Jewish tradition tends not to focus on belief and more on behaviour. We are commanded not to take revenge or bear a grudge, to seek peace, even to assist an enemy in need.

The Israeli writer David Grossman reflecting on the last few days, writes, “You understand that you have no power to influence anyone else. You can only

control yourself and your own way of responding, thinking, feeling, and saying.”

So, if we focus on ourselves what can we learn and do? In my work supporting communities across the UK one theme has emerged in the wake, particularly, of the series of horrific events that took place in 2017 – in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park.  That theme is how to build community resilience.

The Geneva Peacebuilding Platform looks at community resilience as the ability of any kind of system to cope, adapt, and reorganise in response to chronic and acute challenges. Does your community have the built-in attributes to, for example, transform a unsettled or negative peace into a positive peace, and to transform its structures and systems into lasting frameworks that are just, creative, connected, inclusive and sustainable.

The starting points are not complicated.  At a recent workshop I helped to facilitate for the staff of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the theme was how to rebuild trust after Grenfell.  Building trust depends on straightforward actions. Listening to people; showing that you understand;

making commitments based on that understanding; and doing what you say you will do.

In their ground-breaking book, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury specified several rules for conflict resolution of which, in my opinion, the most important is to make sure that good relationships are the first priority.  Everything we have learnt about resilience tells us that building relationships both through talking together and through actually working together, regardless of ideology or belief, reduces conflict and strengthens the ability to cope with disaster – even if it cannot always prevent it.  It was noticeable that in Finsbury Park, as a result of effective community networks, all the key people first on the scene were able to connect with many agencies and colleagues very quickly and this had the effect, somewhat, to minimise the distress caused by the attack.

Doing things together, and building allies and coalitions is hard work and it takes time.  Community groups in Wandsworth working with the local Mental Health Trust have spent nearly 20 years on this painstaking work.

So, to recap, although it is understandable to wish to seek vengeance or retaliation in the face of those with whom we are implacably opposed, we have to find an alternative way.

And the Haggadah itself offers a clue to a different approach.  What do we do when we utter those vengeful verses?  We open the door.  We do this for various reasons including to welcome in the mythical figure of Elijah who

traditionally comes to give comfort at difficult times, and also, and perhaps more importantly, to herald the time of the Messiah. In our Reform Haggadah he is described in the words of Isaiah, as

The messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.

So, at the Seder we hold together these two ideas at the same time – that while we live in a world seemingly full of hatred, we also have the possibility of redemption.

To conclude I’d like to return to David Grossman’s words – partly because they accidentally connect with another aspect of the Haggadah – the child in us all.  Grossman says,

I promise to check myself every day to make sure none of this bad spirit touches me. Not the racism nor the exploitation, not the evil nor the belligerence. Not the stupidity nor the near-sightedness. And I will continue, like a child, to believe that there can be justice here and equality and tranquility and peace between individuals and peoples.

At a time when opposition and enmity seem to characterise much of social behaviour we can only hope that the sense of Elijah’s presence ameliorates and cancels out the hatred and bitterness.