Pour out Your Wrath Upon the Nations...

Why vengeance and wrath at the Seder?

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Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The completion of Barech, Grace After Meals, and the subsequent third cup of wine, leads us to the final parts of the haggadah, the Hallel prayer of praise. Before entering into (or back into, as we began it at the end of Magid) Hallel, we pour our fourth cup of wine, ready to engage in praise and thanks to God – the culmination of the seder night.

But we say one small tefilah (prayer) beforehand, a prayer that seems to be one of anger, vengeance and wrath. The text goes as follows:

Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.

This language is quite strong, to say the least. Why are we reciting this “aggressive” prayer? Furthermore, why is this being recited now? It seems to be out of place, sandwiched between the completion of Barech and the beginning of Hallel. And, according to many, the fourth cup is poured prior to its recitation, indicating that this prayer is intimately tied to the final of the four cups.

The Ritva, representative of an opinion widely shared by other commentators, explains how this prayer is indeed tied to the four cups. There is a debate in the Talmud Yerushalmi (to be discussed shortly) about why we have four cups of wine. One of those opinions states that they are tied to the four cups of puraniyos, punishments, where God in the future will “pour” His wrath upon those who do not recognize His existence. In fact, the Ritva goes so far as to say that the essence – “ikar” - of our redemption is the destruction of the “horn of their kingship”. We recite this specific tefilah now to ask God to begin the process of this destruction. What idea is being conveyed here?

Before taking up this specific explanation of the four cups, we need to take a broader look at the general debate as to what the four cups correspond with.

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:1), there are differences of opinion as to what ideas are in play. One opinion, which is most widely known, ties them to the four different words associated with the redemption of the Jews from Egypt.

Another opinion states that they relate to the four references of the kos Paro, the royal cup of wine used by Pharaoh. This is referring to the Blblical dream of the sommelier, sar mashkim, and subsequent interpretation by Joseph.

The Midrash Raba (Vayeshev 88:5) expands on the allusion here. The different descriptions offered in the dream of grapes and wine in fact are speaking of the redemption of the Jewish people. Therefore, a key yet unobserved element here, the return of the sar maskhim to serving wine in the cup of Pharaoh, is contained within this dream.

Another explanation offered is that the four cups correspond to the four primary kingdoms. Commentators explain that these were the four nations (for example, the Romans) that enslaved the Jewish people (not including the Egyptians). The Talmud then references the four cups of puraneyos, where the nations of the world, at the time of the final redemption, will incur His wrath. There are four different verses from Tanach cited, each expressing some feature of these events. (The Talmud offers a few other reasons, but we will stick with these for the time being)

It is possible that there is one overall theme tying these different opinions, a general concept that the four cups reflect; namely, the concept of redemption, or geula. Easy enough, right? In fact, one can see that redemption is a theme throughout the seder night.

However, redemption is a multi-faceted idea, and the debate about the four cups reflects the complexity involved with understanding this fundamental concept. Let’s start with the most often quoted reason,  the four “words” of redemption. The main concept one can see is that for the Jewish people to be redeemed, there was more to it than transporting them from Egypt.

Redemption was to take this nation of people and tie them to belief in God and subservience to a system of laws to perfect them. There were many different “ingredients” to the redemptive process, and these are mirrored in these different terms. Each reflected a component of said process.

What about the other reasons offered? The relationship between the cup of wine used by Pharaoh seems to be the most difficult to comprehend. One possible answer may be that we are being led to understand another critical concept of how the geula emerged. As we know the successful interpretation of the dream of the sar mashkim in fact was the first step to granting Joseph an audience in front of Pharaoh. And, as we know, Joseph’s emergence as viceroy was of supreme importance in his future ability to bring together his brothers. Joseph ultimately was the metzaref, the joiner of the sons of Yaakov, facilitating the creation of the nation of the Jews.

The point here is that the seeds of the future redemption were planted at a time and place one would think completely insignificant. The detail that Joseph targeted in the dream, Pharaoh's cup, the kos Paro, was one that was so pivotal in bringing about the chain of events.

We see a well-known concept here, the idea that we should not think it is the shock and awe that is the manifestation of God’s divine plan. The minute details, in many instances, serve as the initiators of the overall process. This idea is of the redemptive process is then transferred over into the four cups.

Moving along, we come to the four eras of enslavement of the Jewish people. As we have spilled a considerable amount of ink explaining how the theme of redemption is apparent with the four cups, how do we understand this explanation? There is an idea (introduced at the reunion of Joseph and Binyamin) that there can be no geula without bechiya, or crying.

Does this mean we must suffer in order to earn the geula? That might be hard to stomach. Instead, one could argue that it is only through recognizing with all of our beings the ramifications of the loss of the Beit Hamikdash that we can come to truly understand how beneficial the redemptive state is to us. A similar concept exists here.

The understanding of the subservience to other nations is critical in our ability to truly comprehend and appreciate the geula. When we engage in the review of the events of our exodus from Egypt, we dedicate time to studying the facets of the enslavement by Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. This is not just being done for historical accuracy.

Each of the four eras cited by the Talmud was not simply enslavements of the Jews. Instead, the nations used different methods and were motivated by different ideological objectives. Our enslavements should not be repressed away, nor should they be studied as mere historical events; instead, they should be viewed as the state at complete odds with the state of geula, and our comprehension will enhance our perception of the geula.

This leads us to the final interpretation, the original question posed at the beginning of this piece. As we mentioned, the Ritva emphasizes that the pivotal part of the geula is the future destruction of the kings who challenge God. This theme is expressed in the tefilah itself, where God is asked to pour His wrath on those who do not “acknowledge” Him. Obviously, denial of God by the powerful is a state that cannot be tolerated in the state of geula.

Yet there is more here. The existence of leaders who deny God is in fact a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God. As Jews, we are given the task of always being involved in being sanctifying God through our actions. When we live in line with the system God gave to us, we have the opportunity to be mekadesh Hashem, sanctify His Name.

At the same time, we do need God’s intervention at some point to help rid the world of those who will never be “won over”. At the time of the geula, God will ensure that the desecration of His name will no longer exist. In other words, the geula cannot come into being alongside chillul Hashem, and this idea must be present during the seder night – thus, the four cups.

The coming together of the Jewish people, families and friends, on the seder night, where we are intimately involved in the re-telling of the great miracles and wonders afforded by God to our ancestors, is one of the strongest acts of kiddush Hashem that exists. It is a public declaration of our recognition of God as Creator and arbiter of reward and punishment, schar v’onesh, of His unique relationship with the Jewish people, and of how geula is the state we all yearn for.

At the pinnacle of this process of kiddush Hashem, we now turn to God to ask Him to destroy those who perpetrate chillul Hashem, a most noble and necessary tefilah at this juncture. May we merit to see the geula soon, bimheira beyameinu.