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Thoughts on V’hi She-Amdah Lavoteinu


 

Certainly, one of the most popular and frequently published works in Jewish tradition is the Passover Haggadah, the booklet we use for the Passover seder.  At that traditional meal on the first and second nights of the holiday, this ancient text guides us through the rituals and traditions of this most significant Jewish festival.  The word “Haggadah” means “the telling” and it is intended to fulfill the commandment “v’higadta l’vincha” “you shall tell your child on that day that it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt, from Mitzraim.” (Exodus 13:8) The emphasis is on the personal aspect of the historic event.  Again and again, we are reminded during the course of the seder that this is our story.  We are not merely reading a history book.  This is not only about our ancestors and events which occurred some three millennia ago; it is about us.

 

“B’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzraim.”  “In every generation, a person should see him- or herself as if they have come forth from Mitzraim.”  In Moses’ day, Mitzraim was Egypt, but we have come to see that term not merely as a geographical location, but as a generic reference to the difficult and, often tragic, events and places that our people have experienced over the centuries.  “Min ha-metzar karati Yah.”  As the Psalmist says, “I have called God out of the metzar (the singular form of mitzraim), out of distress, the narrow places closing in on me.  The verse concludes, “anani b’merchav Yah.” “The Lord answered me and brought me relief.” Literally, He answered with expansiveness.  Meitzar which we connect to Mitzraim (Egypt) means a narrow place, while Merchav Yah, implies an expansive area.  As we separate Mitzraim from its historic origins in Egypt, it becomes a universal symbol for so many places and times in Jewish history, including in our own time, and in particular this most difficult and tragic year.

 

The central symbol that we partake of at the seder is the matzah, the unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, lechem oni. This special, uniquely Jewish food, as with so many of our symbols has multiple connotations.  At the beginning of the seder we refer to it as “Lechem oni” and say “this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt.”  We are saying that this, on one hand, is the food we recall from our days of enslavement, when we were in bondage to Egypt.  It is a simple food, flour and water, baked in haste, eaten on the run, as we sat on the edge of our chairs waiting for the next order from our taskmasters.  Yet at the same time, on the other hand, Rabban Gamliel, later in the seder reminds us that this same bread is a symbol of freedom, a reminder of the faith of our ancestors. “Matzah zo she-anu ochlim al shum mah?”  “Why do we eat this matzah? What does it symbolize?” asks Rabban Gamliel and he answers, “To remind ourselves that even before the dough of our ancestors had time to rise, the supreme King of kings, the Holy blessed One, revealed Himself and redeemed them.”

 

It serves then to remind us that in an instant, before the bread can rise, things can change, from good to bad and back from bad to good overnight.  God can appear suddenly and redeem us, save us from the straits, the narrow places in which we find ourselves. Matzah is also a symbol of our faith.  Without delay, without waiting even for the bread to rise, we marched forth from Egypt, from slavery, from oppression, with total faith that God would provide.  We marched off into the desert with a box of crackers with complete faith in the power of the Divine.

 

The Haggadah tells the story of how we went from slavery to freedom on a physical level. However, it also recognizes that in going forth from Mitzraim, we were on a new spiritual path as well.  Our ancestors were idol worshippers. We all learned the midrash in Hebrew school about Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s workshop and embracing a belief in the one God of the universe.  So, in the Haggadah, we speak of departing not only from bondage, but from idolatry, for God has drawn us close to His service.  From Egypt we traveled to Sinai.  The rabbis remind us that the words “Matzot” and “Mitzvot” have the same letters and when the Torah tells us to guard the matzah to keep it from rising, they insist that we read the word as mitzvot as well, and we are urged to keep the commandments.  As the rabbis say, ”Mitzvah ha-ba l’yadecha, al tachmitzena” when the opportunity to do a mitzvah comes into your hand, don’t let it become chametz, don’t delay in performing it.

 

The Haggadah quotes from Joshua’s farewell address to the people of Israel after bringing them into the land of Canaan. Joshua recounts the journey from idolatry to the service of God and speaks of the ancient covenant between God and Abraham.  The Haggadah responds by saying, “Praised be He who keeps His promise to Israel.  Praised be He who foresaw both the enslavement and the redemption when He made the covenant with our father Abraham.”  Though God informs Abraham that his descendants will experience mitzraim, He promises them ultimate redemption. The song “V’hi she-amdah” which follows refers to that promise made to Abraham.

 

The words are simple and have been set to a variety of melodies, though there is one tune which we have come to think of as “the traditional Ashkenazic melody” even if I can recall a different melody from my Hebrew school days that we used to sing at the Model Seder each year and I’m sure there are many more. (I recorded both melodies and you can find them on the Temple B’nai Israel website among the other Passover songs.)

 

The text reads, “V’hi she-amdah lavoteinu v’lanu.”  “And it (literally she, referring to a feminine noun, havtachah, this promise) has sustained our ancestors and us.” “Shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinu.” “for not just one (enemy) has arisen to destroy us.”  “Ela b’chol dor vador omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu.””Rather in every generation there are those who have arisen to seek our destruction.” “V’haKadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam.” “But the Holy Blessed One has saved us from their hand.”

 

We raise our wine cups on high in a toast as it were to the Almighty as we sing these words of faith.  In one tradition, it is customary for everyone to rise to their feet for this passage. This song provides the counterpoint to the other b’chol vador, in every generation. Yes, in every generation we should consider ourselves as if we have experienced redemption personally, but by the same token, in every generation, we are aware that enemies have arisen to destroy us.  Yet we put our faith in a higher power that will ultimately bring redemption to us and to the world.  What a way to live, knowing that what our ancestors endured over the course of Jewish history continues and enemies have sworn to wipe out the Jewish people even to this day.  Incidents of anti-semitism have sky-rocketed in recent days and as the weeks go by, we continue to look for redemption, as we pray for the return of those captured and being held so long by our current enemy, Hamas and their associates.  We have ultimate faith that Hamas will soon suffer the fate of the others who have risen to destroy us through the ages and that they too may soon disappear from the stage of history as the Holy One, “saves us from their hand.”  Yet, in the meantime, we mourn the destruction and death they have brought upon our brothers and sisters in Israel.  And just as in ancient times we looked with sorrow on the destruction of the Egyptian enemies, drowning in the waters of the Red Sea, so too, do we view with deep sorrow the tragic loss of life in the ongoing struggle against Hamas.

 

That simple faith in God’s providence gives us the strength to face the enemies in each generation and, not waiting and depending on miracles, it leads us to rise up ourselves to defend our people and to bring about that salvation.  As a more modern song says, “Al tagidu yom yavo,” “don’t simply say the day will come” havi’u et hayom, bring about that day.”  We bear a responsibility to do all we can to work for a better day.

 

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses reads our passage and suggests that the Hi, the feminine pronoun that begins the passage, is not simply referring to God’s promised salvation, but points to a major figure in the Exodus story who stepped forward to bring about that day, that salvation.  She reads, “V’hi she-amdah lavoteinu” She, Miriam, was the one who stood for our ancestors and for us.  Rabbi Cohler-Esses writes, “I can feel her presence even now, even in this broken generation.  She is standing at a distance, watching us, waiting for the moment to ripen, ready to step in.”

 

While traditionally the ‘hi” in this prayer represents God’s promise or even the Torah, both feminine nouns in Hebrew, Rabbi Cohler-Esses, reminds us of the important role that individuals play and points to Miriam’s crucial intervention in the story.  Her baby brother has been placed in a basket in the Nile, because of Pharaoh’s cruel decree that all Israelite baby boys shall be cast into the river.  Miriam stands by the side of the river, standing guard, watching the basket, and waiting for the appropriate moment to step forward.  As she stands there, her enemy, the daughter of Pharaoh, comes down with her handmaids to bathe in the river, the same river where her father has decreed the death of Israelite babies.  “She went to bathe as if innocent blood were not drenching her land and flowing through the rivers where she bathes.”

 

But the rabbi writes, “Miriam knew better than to see her oppressor as simply an oppressor.  As less than human.  She expected humanity even from her enemy.  Impossibly, she watched with eyes of hope.”  And, indeed, what does happen?  Pharaoh’s daughter finds the basket, opens it, and when she sees the baby crying, her heart opens as well. She has compassion despite the terrible decree of her father and recognizes the humanity of the Israelite baby crying before her. 

 

At that moment, Miriam steps forward, with daring chutzpah, she speaks to the princess, as to a peer, not as the enemy but as another human being, another person capable of compassion and love.  And she intervenes and offers to find a wet-nurse for the baby, bringing her own mother and allowing the baby to be raised for several years by his own mother before he must be taken to the palace to be raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.

 

V’hi she-amdah, it is she who stands, it is Miriam who stands and watches and waits for the right moment, the redemptive moment when she can step in.  “Miriam, is the slave-girl who makes deals for the sake of redemption. Miriam is the one who recognizes the humanity of her oppressor, crossing enemy lines to save life.”

 

Rabbi Cohler-Esses concludes her short piece with these words, ‘I can sense her presence even now in this shattered moment.  Miriam is waiting, watching for just the right moment to step in, into the human field, into the field of redemption and save our people.”  V’hi she-amdah, it is people like Miriam in every generation, who step forward, who stand watching and waiting for an opportunity to bring salvation and redemption.

 

I spoke of the “traditional” tune for V’hi she-amdah, but when I looked on-line, I discovered a more recent melody by Israeli song-writer, Yakov Shwekey and one can find several performances of that melody on Youtube.  The one that follows, sung by Shwekey himself, joined by Shalom Shabbat, another singer, I found particularly moving.  This melody which has become familiar among the people of Israel is sung with heart-rending emotion and the audience joins in the song, in a powerful prayer to the Almighty.  This performance was from 2015, but it could just as well have been recorded today.  The camera pans over the audience and one sees a group of Israeli soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder singing together and reaffirming, V’hakadosh Baruch hu matzileinu miyadam, the Holy blessed One saves us from their hand. 

 

On this festival of Pesach, as we gather around our tables and retell the ancient story, our story, and relive our emergence from Mitzraim once more, we offer this heartfelt prayer, that the Holy One once again may save us from the hand of our enemies, as we work to bring the hostages home, to bring an end to fighting, to work toward what seems impossible, a world where people respect one another and live together in peace and harmony.  If a little slave-girl standing by the river can bring about redemption so long ago, each of us can also play our role toward bringing that day, the day of peace and renewal to the world.

 

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