By Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein
Near the beginning of the maggid (storytelling) section of the haggadah, we traditionally cover the matzah, lift our wine cups and recite, “v’hi sh’amdah … it is this promise that has sustained our ancestors and us, for not just once did somebody try to destroy us; rather, in every generation they try to destroy us, but the Blessed Holy One saves us from them.”
Several years ago, as I was preparing to lead my family seder, I decided to stop reciting this paragraph, even though I really like the melody for chanting the Hebrew. I believe that the stories we tell about who we are influences who we become, and I found myself deeply uncomfortable with the statement that “in every generation they try to destroy us.” Is this really true? Is this necessarily true?
“In every generation they try to destroy us” has the feel of a curse upon ourselves, inviting destructive forces our way, and also encourages our suspicion of others — of the unnamed “they” who will try to destroy us.
During my medieval Jewish history class in rabbinical school, we learned about Salo Baron’s critique of what he refers to as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Baron was responding to a tendency in his day to view Jewish history as all darkness. Baron taught that “suffering is part of the destiny [of the Jews], but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption.” I was leaving out the v’hi sh’amdah passage to protest the lachrymose view of Jewish history.
This year, I took another look at v’hi sh’amdah and realized that I had missed the main point of the paragraph. The essence is not the persecution of the Jews, but rather, our relationship with a benevolent God. The message is that when others rise up against us, God will save us, in each generation. God is our saving power, and God will not abandon us. We lift our wine cups when reciting v’hi sh’amdah in an act of faith and hope.
Why was I so ready to reject this passage?
I have come to realize that part of my discomfort came from not wanting to consciously recognize the reality of anti-Semitism in my life experience. In my mind, the message of “in every generation they try to destroy us” could not be about my generation, and reading this passage during seder was threatening to the thin veneer that allowed me to be in denial that I am part of a vulnerable group.
In reality, I was continually on high alert during my childhood and teens in northern New Mexico, discerning how hidden I needed to be about my Jewishness in order to be safe. One day in the back of my high school chemistry class, while our elderly teacher was presenting a lesson, a classmate tried to convince me to become Christian.
I felt unsettled and at lunchtime confided in a close friend about this experience, only to hear her say, “I wouldn’t mind if you were Christian, either.” This was just one of many not-so-subtle messages that our culture was not fully accepting of Jews. I recall riding home on the school bus one afternoon past a water tower upon which had been painted, “Kill the Jews.” Anti-Semitism was indeed present while I was growing up in the 1980s, even as I told myself that it wasn’t.
With the rise in overt anti-Semitism this year here in the United States, I am challenged to stop denying that it is real. This is ultimately a blessing for me, for I was expending a lot of effort being in denial, and in the realm of parenting, I was unconsciously communicating my fears about being Jewish to my child rather than openly discussing it in a mindful way.
I will recite v’hi sh’amdah this year, practicing the courage to accept the reality of anti-Semitism in our times, and then to affirm my faith and hope for the future. I am grateful for the wisdom of our ancestors to craft these rituals for us.
As we navigate the world today, an important message I want to communicate this year to my 11-year-old son, and other participants at our family seder, is to keep faith in the promise of redemption.
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein (thrivingspirit.org) is a teacher of spiritual practice, writer and community leader living in Mount Airy with her family. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.