Psalm 79

At our Pesech seders, after we open the door for Elijah, we proclaim: “Pour out Your rage at the nations whom do not acknowledge You.” Historically, it was a dramatic moment of courage. For Jews often lived among neighbors who were prone to inflict harm on them. It was as if after Elijah was invited in, we could act as if Messianic judgment and harmony had already arrived. This dramatic proclamation of “pour out Your rage” is the sixth verse of Psalm 79.

Holocaust scholar Professor Deborah Lipstadt writes of this Seder moment, “Many seder participants are decidedly uncomfortable with the short paragraph…some modern Haggadot deleted…I, on the other hand love it…For one brief shining moment, the Jew stood tall. The playing field was more than equal as the Jew turned to the Judge of all the earth, the same Judge that Abraham had turned to in Genesis and called upon that Judge to do justice. And then so suddenly as it began, it ended. The door was shut, the Jew sat down, the Seder continued, and all returned as it had been and would remain for too many years.”

Remarkably, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), emphasized in a talk that these words only applied to those “nations that did not know God,” and then focused on the ways in which so many nations of his own day cared for other nation’s wellbeing with food, medical relief, and education. He stated that the proclamation of Psalm 79 and the Seder was not meant for those nations that act with Divine compassion.

Elie Wiesel’s favorite phrase was “and yet.” So, Psalm 79 shifts in emotional focus. It begins with a first-hand account of the horrific slaughter where “blood flowed like water” through the streets of Jerusalem and God’s Sanctuary was utterly destroyed. A plea for God to destroy the nations who wrought such devastation and mocked God is at the center. But, the end is a declaration that we are Your people with whom Your name is identified. Save us for our sake and for Yours. Despite the horror of the immediate past, there is faithfulness in the present and hope for the future.

In our own homes with family around our Passover seder tables, we quote the words of Psalm 79. Our day is quite different than that of the Psalmist or the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. And yet, in echoing ancient words, we remember our people’s reoccurring pain and vulnerability and are prompted to attend to the incompleteness of justice and human dignity in our own day.

Psalm 79 is dedicated to Mimi Goldstein