Near the beginning of the maggid (storytelling) section of the Haggadah, we traditionally cover the matzah, lift our wine cups and recite, “v’hi sh’amdah … it is this promise that has sustained our ancestors and us, for not just once did somebody try to destroy us; rather, in every generation they try to destroy us, but the Blessed Holy One saves us from them.”
Several years ago, as I was preparing to lead my family Seder, I decided to stop reciting this paragraph, even though I really like the melody for chanting the Hebrew. I believe that the stories we tell about who we are influences who we become, and I found myself deeply uncomfortable with the statement that “in every generation they try to destroy us.” Is this really true? Is this necessarily true?
I have come to realize that part of my discomfort came from not wanting to consciously recognize the reality of anti-Semitism in my life experience. In my mind, the message of “in every generation they try to destroy us” could not be about my generation, and reading this passage during Seder was threatening to the thin veneer that allowed me to be in denial that I am part of a vulnerable group.
In reality, I was continually on high alert during my childhood and teens in northern New Mexico, discerning how hidden I needed to be about my Jewishness in order to be safe. One day, in the back of my high school chemistry class, while our elderly teacher was presenting a lesson, a classmate tried to convince me to become Christian.
This was just one of many not-so-subtle messages that our culture was not fully accepting of Jews. I recall riding home on the school bus one afternoon past a water tower upon which had been painted, “Kill the Jews.” Anti-Semitism was indeed present while I was growing up in the 1980s, even as I told myself that it wasn’t.
With the rise in overt anti-Semitism this year here in the United States, I am challenged to stop denying that it is real.
I will recite v’hi sh’amdah this year, practicing the courage to accept the reality of anti-Semitism in our times, and then to affirm my faith and hope for the future. I am grateful for the wisdom of our ancestors to craft these rituals for us.
As we navigate the world today, an important message I want to communicate this year to my 11-year-old son, and other participants at our family Seder, is to keep faith in the promise of redemption.
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein (thriving spirit.org) is a Philadelphia-based teacher of spiritual practice, writer and community leader.