Shefokh ḥamatkha, “pour out your wrath,” is an orphaned and thus intensely charged passage in the haggadah. It floats between Barekh and Hallel, and is assigned sometimes to the former and sometimes to the latter, belonging to neither in any evident way. The passage as spoken is separated from both sections by the opening of the door preceding it, and the closing of the door following it; it is, essentially, what we say when the door is open, not only as text but also as theater, in which actions matter as much as words. A door is opened, a glass is filled, words are spoken, sometimes words are sung, and the door is closed. The door, the glass, the speech, the song, the door.
What then are the words that we say? I mean the words themselves, not any words we might wish to substitute for them, since an important teaching of our tradition is always to look at the words as given, always to start there (wherever we may wish to go later), always to linger there longer than we might wish to.
The words are a curse, or a series of curses, beginning in striking symmetry, then strikingly breaking that symmetry, jarring our confident expectations:
Imprecation and imprecation, reason and reason, imprecation and imprecation—and then we expect reason and reason but get, instead, imprecation and imprecation, as if the anger of the liturgist had broken the symmetries of the psalms being quoted. Hence, perhaps, the turn to Lamentations for the last imprecation, which also allows the intensification of the verbs throughout, from “pouring” at the beginning to “reaching” in the middle to “eradicating” at the end. A curse both controlled and uncontrolled.
We say all this with the door open. What does it mean to open a door, from without, from within? Why do we open our doors at this point, or at all? Tradition says that we open the door because this night is leil shimurim, the night of being watched over (as shemurah matzah is watched over); originally the door may have been open the whole night long. We are free and fearless to welcome those who come our way: pilgrims, Elijah and Miriam, refugees and wanderers (Elijah among them), the Messiah. The haggadah itself tells us as much: “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we say, and to let the hungry come and eat we have to open our doors and let them in.
Our history of being persecuted tells us that we also open a door to discover and unmask informers, enemies, conspirators, blood libelers lurking at our doors. The closed door lets them spy, keeps us from seeing that they are spying. We open the door in self-defense, not fearless but justly fearful.
If we move outside the text, we recognize that our history of seeking refuge teaches us that we are as often outside the door as inside it. It is often we who ask that the door be opened. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” writes Emma Lazarus; this golden door must be, of course, not only illumined by the lamp but also opened by the hand to let us in, refugees as we were from pogroms and Nazis and poverty. Philip Halle’s account of how 3,000 Huguenot inhabitants of Le Chambon helped 5,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis to get to safety begins with such a hand. Magda Trocmé was at home, heard a knock, and opened the outer door. She saw a woman covered in snow. The woman asked to enter. Trocmé responded, “Naturally, come in and come in.” Let all who are in need, come and celebrate the festival of freedom.
What then is the relationship between the open door and the curse?
The easy way to align them is to understand the opening of the door chiefly as a strategy for dealing with enemies. We open the door, we discover our hidden enemies and we curse them; action and words are in concord.
A second way, not as easy though still not conceptually difficult, looks at when the various elements of the drama were assembled. The tradition of the open door came first, before there were spies. Then, later, spies and blood libelers appeared, and their deadly presence required us to reinterpret the door that had previously been open in welcome. Such an analysis frees us from the contradiction, each element emerging from the clear needs of its moment, however those needs oppose one another
But do we want to be freed from the contradiction, to disentangle the elements the liturgist fused together? Writing of the Bible translation that he did with Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig commented that they were aware of Higher Criticism and the figure called “R”, the final redactor of the biblical text, but that they themselves thought of “R” as standing for Rabbenu, our Teacher, “for whoever he was, and whatever text lay before him, he is our teacher, and his theology is our teaching.”1
The liturgist or liturgists here sought to bring us not unison but harmony and counterpoint. We welcome and we curse. We curse and we invite. We do not curse in secret; even our cursing is, at least potentially, dialogic, spoken in the hearing presence of those we direct it against. We have to curse; opening the door exposes us to the world around us, and in that world there are those who have devoured Jacob. But also in that world there are those we must welcome, and who have welcomed us
1Franz Rosenzweig, “The Unity of the Bible: A Position Paper vis-à-vis Orthodoxy and Liberalism,” Scripture and Translation, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald and Everett Fox (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1994), 23.