Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pour Out Your Love

Every year at the very end of the Passover Seder, something shocking happens. We have come through a whole evening of telling the story of our miraculous redemption from slavery in Egypt. We have eaten the bread of humility, tasted the bitterness of slavery, and sung out in joy at our liberation as a people. We have shared a meal together and there is an incredible sense of gratitude and satisfaction. And then, just as it’s all about to end, we recite words of burning rage and anger: “Shfoch Chamatcha el hagoyim asher Lo Yeda’ucha,” “Pour out your Wrath against the nations who do not know you.” Pour out your wrath and destroy all the evil nations of this world! Why such anger? Why such bitterness? These words, of course, are recited as we come to “Elijah’s cup” in the seder. We open the door to let Elijah into our homes, and then we recite these words as Elijah comes to partake of the wine we have poured for him. And it is then that we experience such anger at the world. Why?

It is, in fact, the very joy of the seder, the very fact that we have gone on a journey from the lowliness of slavery and then tasted the sweetness of freedom that we find ourselves so angry when the seder is about to come to its conclusion. In our homes, around the seder table, there is so much light and warmth and joy. And then we open the door and we peer outside into the dark night, into the world ‘out there’ that is still so filled with oppressions and slaveries and injustices and anti-Semitism, and we are slapped in the face by reality. And in the darkness of that night, we usher in none other than Elijah the Prophet himself, the one who will herald the coming of the Messiah, who will, once and for all, bring an end to a world of so much hatred and injustice. No wonder we say ‘Pour out your wrath!’ It’s a moment of national catharsis, --of saying ‘bring on the Mashiach already!-- as the magical spell of the seder is broken, and we remember that we must return to this very imperfect world that is still in need of so much “tikkun Olam,” so much healing and repair.

There’s a beautiful message there of social justice for the world. But we must remember that, as the Haggadah tell us, this is a world where the Jewish people know enemies in every generation. In the modern State of Israel, conflicts with enemies still define the daily reality of the modern Jewish state. Many people today, particularly in this country, express discomfort with those words—pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know you—because anger is dangerous! It’s a very powerful and destructive emotion. Anger is always liable to lead toward more violence and more hatred. Lord knows, there are so many extremists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict who pray for God’s wrath to pour out on their enemy. Indeed, there are so many who believe that to be good Israelis or good Palestinians, you must feel anger and pray for God to act against the other side. Isn’t that what our seder is asking us to do, after all? …Not necessarily!…

A couple of centuries ago, there was a radical new group of upstarts in the Eastern European Jewish community known as the Hasidim. They were radical because they departed from the dry and sober world of the Yeshiva, and took the passionate message of Judaism to the masses. The foundational message of Hasidism was that not only the elite Yeshiva Buchers, or students of Torah, had access to the deepest understandings of Godliness, but that anyone could find God, because God’s presence is everywhere. In fact, the Hasidim went so far as to say that even an illiterate peasant could rise up to the highest rungs of spirit just by pouring out his heart in prayer and in song and in joy before the Creator in Heaven. Such populist teachings were downright heresy to the extremely hierarchical and entrenched polity of the Jewish establishment of those days! And so arose the great conflicts between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim, or The Opponents, as the establishment Jews were called.

There is a story told of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, who, in his youth, had been a real Mitnaged, a real enemy of the Hasidic upstarts. Once, Teitelbaum was staying with his friend Rabbi Joseph Asher, another anti-Hasidic Rabbi. Right at this time, a new siddur, or prayerbook appeared—hot off the press—that contained many teachings and insights of the Hasidim. When Rabbi Teitelbaum got his hands on that prayerbook, he snatched the heavy tome from the messenger, and he threw it on the floor! Now, anyone familiar with Jewish attitudes toward siddurim, or any Holy book containing the name of God, knows that this is an act of . In fact, whenever we accidently drop a holy book, we know that we must kiss the book to show that we mean no sacrilege. But Rabbi Teitelbaum willfully took that siddur and slammed it onto the floor, because it was the prayerbook of his enemy, the Hasidim! Upon seeing this shocking act, Rabbi Joseph Asher picked it up and said “After all, it is a prayerbook, and we must not treat it disrespectfully!” When the Seer of Lublin, a great Hasidic master, was told of this incident, he said: “Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum will himself become a Hasid; Rabbi Joseph Asher [who picked up the prayerbook] will remain an opponent of the Hasidic way. For he who can burn with enmity can also burn with love for God, but he who is coldly hostile will always find the way closed. And so it was: Rabbi Teitelbaum, who once cast that Hasidic prayerbook on the gound, would himself one day become a devoted and passionate Hassid![i]

So what is the moral of the story? That of course anger can indeed be destructive and lead to the very desecration of the Divine Name. On the other hand, if we pay very close attention to our anger, if we even let our anger and our hatreds and our angry impulses be our teachers, they can lead us to surprising places, to shocking places—maybe even to Love itself!

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav, we learn about the instructions for the sacrificial fires of our ancient Israelite ancestors: “Esh tamid tukad al hamizbe’ach, lo tichbeh,” “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, it may not go out.” (Lev. 6:6) The Sfat Emet, a great commentary published at the turn of the 20th century, explains this line by comparing it with a famous line in the Song of Songs: “Mayim rabim lo yuchlo lechabot et Ha’Ahavah,” “Many waters cannot drown out love,” (Cant. 8:7) They can’t douse the fire of love. The Sfat Emet explains that the fire on the sacrificial altar represented a raging fire of love that must always burn in the heart of every Jew. And like the ancient Priests, we must constantly tend and keep that fire burning every moment of our lives. And, just as the ancient priests placed the sacrificial animals upon that ever-burning flame, so too, must we allow every distracting thought, every evil and hateful impulse that arises within us, to burn upon that inner flame in our hearts, to be purified and to return back to its Source in God.

What does the Sfat Emet mean by this teaching? It means that as Jews, as human beings, we look out into the world, and we see that we are still faced with real enemies. We look out into that dark night, and we see our innocent ones suffering at the hands of those who would destroy us all. And our hearts burn with anger and rage. But, says the Sfat Emet, look deeply into that anger and rage, look as deeply as you can into its essence, its Source. What is that rage? It’s certainly a fire burning in our heart. But what is it that burns? It is, in fact, Love! Love thwarted. Love wounded by injustice and oppression and murder and violence. But all anger is, in its deepest essence, Love itself! Love, says the Sfat Emet is the only fire that burns so fiercely in our souls. But like all fire, Love itself can be dangerous when we don’t understand its power. If we use its power to fuel our most hateful and vengeful thoughts, it can be used as an instrument of violence and murder. If, however, we come to understand that the essence of anger, of the fire, is Love itself, then we offer our hateful and vengeful thoughts to the fire, and allow the fire to burn up the thoughts, and transmute the anger into love itself.

This is what is happening that night of the seder when we look outside and say those words, Shfoch Chamatcha, Pour out Your Anger! The Sfat Emet goes on to explain, that the Torah says over and over that the flames of the sacrifices were to be kept burning “Kol Halilah ad haboker,” “all night until morning.” (Lev. 6:2) Every Jew, explains the Sfat Emet, must struggle with the night, with the darkness in his very own heart, until he brings on the morning in his own soul.

Do you look out onto the world and see the darkness? Do you see the enemy? Do you see the terrible things the enemy is doing? What is happening in your heart and soul as you look upon that darkness? Don’t push away the anger! Don’t repress it! Pour it out! Let every passionate and vengeful thought and feeling be there! But here’s the trick: notice where you are when you think those hateful and violent thoughts: you’re in the darkness yourself! You’re a part of that dark and cruel night when you let that hatred define you. So offer that hatred to the fire itself within. Let it burn up so brightly that the very darkness of the night itself is cast away.

When we’re getting it right, that angry hatred of Shfoch Chamatcha transforms itself and gives way to a deeper state of being—not violence, not vengeance, but a deep and abiding yearning--when there is only a longing, a thirsting for the light of morning itself to dawn on this world. When we’re getting it right, we’re motivated not by hatred or by anger, but by Love itself to take action for the sake of Justice.

As we look out on our world on this eve of Passover, there is still so much violence in this world, and no True peace yet in the Land of Israel. Each side still preaches its partial Truths, and flames mutual hatreds on all sides. This year, may we learn this deepest lesson of those cathartic lines of Shfoch Chamatcha. May we learn that the struggle to overcome the dark night itself within our own hearts contains the solution to our modern struggles with our enemies. May we come to see that only when we and our enemies share the same yearning in place of anger, only then can there be real peace. May there be ‘next year in Jerusalem’ a true celebration of peace once and for all.

[i] Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Late Masters. New York, Schocken Books. 1948. p. 189.