Pouring out anger... and love

Why call out these words, and why at that place in the Seder - before the fourth cup of wine?

pessah wine matza 88 (photo credit: )
pessah wine matza 88
(photo credit: )
"Pour out Thy wrath upon the gentiles who do not know You and who do not call upon Your Name." (Haggada) During the mystical Pessah Seder - the night when every Jew attempts to feel as if he/she personally experienced the servitude in and the Exodus from Egypt - one jarring note comes between the Grace after Meals and the chanting of the Hallel praises to God: "Pour out Thy wrath upon the gentiles who do not know You and who do not call upon Your Name. They have devoured Jacob, and laid waste His Temple." Why call out these words, and why at that particular place at the Seder, just before the fourth cup of wine? These words echo Psalm 79, which opens: "A song to Assaf: O God, the gentiles have invaded Your inheritance, have defiled Your Holy Temple, have given Jerusalem to the jackals…," and the custom of including them in the Haggada harks back to the time of the Jerusalem Talmud (fourth century CE). Rabbenu Menahem Meiri brilliantly analyzes the placement: we have just eaten the meal reminiscent of the Pascal sacrifice in the Holy Temple and have recited the Grace after Meals, the introduction to which (zimmun) is derived from the verse, "Since I call upon the name of the Lord, give greatness to our God." We have also prayed for the restoration of Jerusalem (the third blessing in the Grace after Meals) and have given the "good and beneficent" God His due for having granted us the merit of burying our dead (the fourth blessing). Clearly the Temple had been destroyed and the Jews had been persecuted (by Emperor Hadrian). Hence, we who call on the name of God ask Him to punish those who do not, and we who have just devoured sacrificial food ask that those who "devoured" Jacob not be allowed to remain unpunished. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, great Ashkenazi decisor of 16th-century Cracow, Poland, adds yet another custom: "And we open the door [at this point] in order to remind us that this [the Seder night] is a night of watching [leil shimurim], the Night of the Watchful Guardian, and in the merit of this faith the Messiah will come and pour out his wrath on those who deny God's existence." And to this, the 20th-century Hafetz Haim (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan Hakohen of Radin, Poland) added in his Mishna Brura commentary on the Shulhan Aruch: "We are not frightened [of the open door]; and it is the custom in these countries to pour an extra cup of wine and call it the Cup of Elijah…." A 12th-century authority (Ma'aseh Rokeah 19a) cites the custom of leaving the door open all night in order to greet Elijah, herald of the Messiah, although most authorities suggest that the door be kept ajar only for a very short time if at all, and that - especially in gentile countries - we do not rely on miracles by leaving our doors unlocked. I would like to understand the reason for opening the door, a cogent reason which should explain the connection of the open door to leil shimurim, Elijah and the exclamation, "Pour out thy wrath on the gentiles who do not call upon Your Name…" - and all of this happening just before the fourth cup. What is the true significance of these words and acts? As we have seen, the Grace after Meals refers to the destruction of the Temple - even as it calls for its rebuilding - as well as to the Hadrianic persecutions after the fall of Betar (135 CE). Hence our cry at this juncture in the Seder for the punishment of those who refuse to recognize God - His morality and His nation Israel - is most understandable. Our next cup of wine, however, introduces the Psalms of Praise for our return to our homeland - although we may still remain vulnerable ("Please God save us" is part of the Hallel) - with exaltations like "Let all the nations give praise to God… because He has enabled our victory in His lovingkindness." We therefore invoke Elijah, herald of the Messiah, to announce the culmination of our salvation, the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Josephus, great historian of the Second Commonwealth, provides the most authoritative source for the opening of the door: "On the festival of matzot, which we call Pessah, the priests/kohanim are accustomed to open the gates of the Temple immediately after midnight…." (Antiquities 18, 2.2). And remember, the main function of the Temple in Jerusalem is as a house of prayer for all nations, the place to which all nations will swarm to learn Torah from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). The Divine Revelation at Sinai is preceded by a tale of two gentiles: Amalek, the symbol of unredeemable evil which must be destroyed (Exodus 17:8-16), and Jethro, the gentile inspired to join the ranks of his son-in-law Moses as a result of God's miracles during our Exodus (Ex 18:1-12). Amalek is the gentile who must be destroyed; Jethro is the gentile who must be welcomed into the Temple gates! The Midrash on the verse, "This is the law of the Pessah lamb sacrifice: no son of a stranger (ben-nechar, gentile) may eat of it" (Ex 12:43), teaches: "Job declared, 'a stranger [ger] may not dwell outside,' the Holy One blessed be He cannot invalidate any of His children; I shall open my doors for the guest to enter the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He. And eventually strangers (gerim) will be priests/kohanim in the Holy Temple" (Shmot Rabba 19, Vilna Edition). And so, just before the praises of Hallel, we must open the doors of our Seder to the gentile world, remembering the function of our Holy Temple, as our invitation to every human being to accept the God of peace and morality - despite our legitimate theological differences. When they enter our portals, peace will come not only to Israel but to the entire world - and this is the truest message of our "time of freedom" and prayer for redemption! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.