Something peculiar happens during the seder (many peculiar things happen, of course, which is why we ask questions) that requires special attention. As we tell the story of our rescue, we learn that our time in Egypt was predestined. After all, God told Avram (Genesis 15:13-14) that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land, but would eventually leave after God punished their oppressors. And then, interrupting the historical narrative, we cover the matzah, lift our full wine cups, and offer a toast to God:
“And it is this which has stood by our ancestors and us. For not just one has risen up to annihilate us; in every generation they rise up to annihilate us, but the Blessed Holy One saves us from them.”
It seems a strange thing to do, to lift a glass to acknowledge our history of victimhood. Of course, the specifics of the story we tell are about Pharaoh and the Egyptian enslavement, right? Not so fast, says the haggadah. In fact, it goes back to Lavan, who was doubly bad–whereas Pharaoh “only” sought to kill the male children, Lavan wanted to kill us all. That’s what we encounter next in the haggadah. Considering the context, what place does a toast have in our ceremony, especially in that part of the seder?
Sometimes, we need to see pictures to help us understand words that are otherwise not so easy to understand. On Shabbat morning, the final day of Pesah, we will look at the artwork from two haggadot that either anticipate or reflect on periods of persecution: The Szyk Haggadah, from the acclaimed artist Arthur Szyk, and A Survivor’s Haggadah, with woodcuts by Miklos Adler.
This passage from the haggadah, known by its opening Hebrew words V’hee She’amdah, is particularly poignant as our concern about an Iran with nuclear capacity grows daily. As we enter the last days of this festival of redemption, this melody for V’hee She’amdah might serve as a source of hope and reassurance that, to paraphrase a President’s term, it is God Who has our backs.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,
Rabbi David Wise