Monday, April 21, 2008

I have been young, and now I am old

So begins what is probably the most controversial line in the traditional Passover haggadah, right before the third cup of wine:

I have been young, and now I am old; and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken, nor his children begging for bread.
This is part of the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals. It’s Psalm 37, verse 25, and a literal reading of the verse is unkind. Perhaps God does not forsake the righteous, or perhaps the righteous do not feel forsaken by God even if they are forsaken by people. But their children all too often must beg for bread, and it feels particularly wrong to deny that after partaking in a festival meal.

The paragraph that surrounds the verse appears to be disconnected verses from various psalms, and I’d love to understand how those verses hang together. In perusing a 1912 haggadah, Lisa noticed that the verse is missing from that paragraph both in Hebrew and in English. (Well, she noticed the English, and I confirmed the Hebrew.) The haggadah text has been remarkably stable over the past 900 years, but how much has the birkat hamazon changed? An extensive two-volume set of commentary on the haggadah that I just acquired has no discussion at all of the lengthy birkat hamazon, going straight from the afikoman to the third cup. The inclusion of the birkat hamazon is treated as simply a pointer, implying that as the birkat hamazon changes in regular practice, so should it change in the haggadah.

Over the years, I’ve heard various ways to try to understand this verse other than simply rejecting it. The most heartening is that we should treat the verse as a reminder that we must never leave a child begging for bread. The only way we can truthfully say that verse is if we have responded to hunger whenever we have encountered it. But regardless of the interpretation, some explanatory note should be added to the haggadah if the verse is included. The haggadah is far more widely read than the birkat hamazon, and it is important to provide some explanation of this verse other than the simplest and cruelest one. So, a new version:
I have been young, and now I am old; and I have not turned my back on the forsaken, nor ignored a child who was begging for bread.
Or as Siddur Sim Shalom puts it:
I have been young and now I am old, but never have I looked on at one righteous and forsaken, and allowed his children to go begging for bread.
Though a closer and completely different reading of “I have not seen” might be more appropriate as a confession for Yom Kippur (and quite at odds with the surrounding paragraph):
I have been young and now I am old, and I have been blind to the righteous who have been forsaken, and their children begging for bread.


Michael said...

An article at says that many past haggadahs have that verse printed in a smaller size than the surrounding verses. It also proposes the prophecy interpretation: in the world to come, this verse will be true.

Vardibidian said...

"A little that a righteous man hath [is] better than the riches of many wicked." Psalms 37:16

I think that within the context of Psalm 37, the righteous man cannot be forsaken, even if he is poor, even if he is undergoes misery and disaster. Was Job forsaken?

The second part is more troublesome. I think that the "children" (or "seed") who haven't been seen begging for bread can't be the actual children of the actual righteous people, because not only are the children of some of the prophets (for instance) forced to beg, there are loads of examples of righteous people with unrighteous children. In fact, that's more the common story than the outlier.

I think I would say that the "children" of the righteous are not the children of their flesh, but the children of their righteousness, that is, those that choose to follow in the path of righteousness. Still, can we say that they don't beg for bread? Only if we abstract bread to be lechem hapanim, the bread of the Presence. The reward of the tzadik is that he is not forsaken by the Presence, and that he will through his example (eventually) father (spiritual) children, who will also never need to beg for the Presence.

Now, although I like that interpretation (which I just made up but I think is supported by the text), it only works within the Psalm, which is on about how the meek will inherit the proverbial, and the wicked man will default on his mortgages. The text was deliberately taken out of context to be placed in the birkat hamazon, for some sort of historical reason, and a good interpretation of that text should take into account its context there. So I'm not all that helpful, really.

I'm surprised that the commentary doesn't address the birkat hamazon, which is a significant part of the seder. I wonder if they address it in their other works?


Michael said...

You’ve added a lot to my understanding of the verse.

While I tend to think of “forsaken” as forsaken by God, in this verse it’s followed immediately by children begging for bread and contained in a psalm that is concerned with explicitly worldly wealth. So I think it’s fair to look at forsaken as forsaken by people as well. Also, I’d rather believe that none are forsaken by God, righteous or not.

Another possible interpretation, though it would seem out of place in the birkat hamazon, is that there are no truly righteous. In the haggadah, it would then obviously be a reminder that even Moses erred (and was punished severely for it). We all suffer in various ways, as part of the human condition, and that will only cease when we (all) attain righteousness.

Michael said...

Robert Alter’s new translation of the Psalms renders the verse as:

"A lad I was, and now I am old, and I never have seen a just man forsaken and his seed seeking bread"

His commentary on the line:

"The beauty of this line in part explains its presence in Jewish liturgy at the end of the grace after meals, but the questionable moral calculus behind it is precisely what Job argues against so trenchantly. The only way to sustain the idea that no just person is ever in want is to assume that a needy person must somehow be unjust, whatever the appearances to the contrary. This is the very conclusion that Job's friends draw about him: If he is sorely afflicted, he must have done something terribly wrong to deserve it. The Job poet challenges this received wisdom and proposes a more complicated, indeed paradoxical, moral vision."

However, Job is a story, while Psalm 37 is an exhortatory sermon. In context, the verse feels forward-looking as in "I have a dream." We could understand "seen" as a vision of the world as it could be, where the Psalm is essentially saying that I have never lost faith in my vision of a just world. I have been young, and now I am old, and I have never striven for a world where a just man is forsaken or his children are begging for bread.