After Exodus 15:1-18
As the waters parted before them
they sang their songs of praise:
Some sang to the one who
shattered Pharaoh’s army
with a mighty right hand,
some sang to the god of their ancestors
who remained faithful to them
and them alone.
Others sang to the one
who redeems the oppressed
so that the world may know of his might:
who is like you god of war,
consuming the enemy like straw
incinerated with one awesome
mighty blast from on high?
Some sang a hymn of praise
to the god of vengeance
who shamed the Egyptians
hurling them all like stones
into the heart of the churning sea;
still others sang out with hope
that the peoples of the land
would now melt away
as god’s people went forth
to dispossess them.
As they marched on
their voices joined into one feverish song;
a tuneless wordless howl
echoing on through the depths
never to rise to the source
of their liberation.
A poem for Pesach: “Imagine the Angels of Bread” by Martin Espada. Read it at seder this year!
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth; this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorum,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
Just in time for Passover, here’s British author Howard Jacobson’s fascinating take on Dayenu as the ultimate sarcastic Jewish joke:
Superfluous though we insist each of God’s favors and blessings to us was, the truth is we would have been in serious trouble without any of them. For where would have been the use of His leading us to the Red Sea had He not parted it; or our wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, had He not provided us with Manna? We say the one would have sufficed without the other, but in fact it would not. Thus the song is as much a rehearsal of complaints we might have voiced and might voice yet, as it is a hymn of praise.
Built into this magnificent song of gratitude, therefore, is the fact of our colossal ingratitude. Nothing is enough for us. Not because we are vainglorious or greedy, but because our appetite for intellectual dissatisfaction, like our apprehension of disaster, knows no bounds. Call it the ravenousness of reasoning—the rabbinic “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Call it our love of striking bargains. Call it hyperbole. Call it what you like, it is the bedrock of Jewish comedy. As it is the bedrock of our faith.
The Jewish joke is above all a strategy for survival. It looks, of necessity, to the future. It anticipates a woe before that woe is visited upon us. It gets in first with the criticism and the cruelty. If anybody is going to knock us around it won’t be the Cossacks, it will be ourselves. So that while a Jewish joke appears to be the perfecting of self-denigration, it is actually the opposite. It is the fruit of a perpetual vigilance and in the process demonstrates an intelligence that is, because it has to be, unremitting.
If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke—and who is to say that the Dayenu is not it?—it would never finish. Ours is a religion of suspense. We wait and wait, for a God who cannot show Himself and a Messiah we would rather never came. We await an end, as we await a punch line, to a narrative that has no end. And just when we thought it was all over, it begins again. What are the last words of the Dayenu? “It would have sufficed us …” But by now our ear demands another clause, another gift, another setback for God to overcome. There is no final thank-you because there is no final sufficiency.
If this whets your appetite, check out the entire piece in Tablet Magazine.
and when your children ask you what
do you mean by this rite tell them
in the beginning we offered late night sacrifices
and supplications while our god meted out
punishments against the gods of egypt later
we hid behind behind doorjambs swelled with
dread murmuring pour out your wrath on
those who seek our blood and destroy the nations who know
not your name but now we observe by bursting the
gates of fear wide open proclaiming let all who’ve been
broken gather each another’s scattered
shattered pieces let all who seek liberation
come to the table let all who are hungry
come and eat
(Exodus 12:12, 26-27)
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, God instructs the Israelites, upon entering the Promised Land, to offer up the first fruits of their harvest. They are then to recite a short narrative of their history, beginning with their earliest ancestors and ending with their own arrival at the land.
This narrative, made famous by its central place in the Passover Haggadah, begins thus:
My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
The opening words of this passage have been the subject of considerable controversy for centuries. According to most commentators, the “wandering father” is identified as Jacob. This would certainly fit neatly into the Biblical narrative, as Jacob did indeed go down to Egypt with his sons during a period of famine.
In the traditional Passover Haggadah, however, the Rabbis translate the Hebrew “My father was a wandering Aramean” (“arami oved avi“) very differently. By changing the vocalization of the Hebrew “oved” (“wandering”) to “ibed” (“destroyed”), they render the text to mean: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (The Haggadah identifies this would-be murderer as Laban who, by threatening Jacob, “sought to uproot us all.”)
So which is it?
In true Jewish fashion, the debate rages on. Among the classical commentators, Rashi supports the Haggadah’s reading, while others, including Ibn Ezra adhere to the conventional interpretation. Rashbam accepts the “wandering Aramean” interpretation as well, but identifies the wanderer as Abraham rather than Jacob.
Beyond the fancy hermeneutics, however, I’m struck by the two spiritual models suggested by these respective translations. One highlights our wanderings, identifying our peoplehood with our collective seeeking – our desire to journey toward a better and more blessed future. The second model suggests we are essentially a hunted and hated people, forever on the run from those who would seek our destruction.
These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day. Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify? The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?