17 Nisan 5780

April 10, 2020

On the Shabbat during Passover, we read the special portion from Exodus 33:12-34:26, and we are reminded of the age-old desire to know God. Moses implores God to let him see God. While God will not allow Moses to see God’s face, God tells Moses, “I will make My goodness pass before you…” Perhaps we experience the divine presence through the goodness we create in the world. The Torah then sets forth the thirteen attributes of God, among them that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. By emulating these very attributes, we create the goodness which allows us to know God.

Passover is called “The Festival of Freedom” in our liturgy. It could equally be called “The Festival of Our Singing.” Throughout the holiday we engage in singing. We sing at the seder table. At prayer services we sing the Hallel, psalms of praise. On Shabbat it is customary to chant the Song of Songs. And at the end of Passover we sing the very first song ever sung by the Jewish people, the Song at the Red Sea. These songs are not all the same kind of song. We sing songs of jubilation as we experience our liberation and our salvation. These are the songs we sing at the start and finish of the holiday. And we sing songs of intimacy and love – these are the poems and lyrics of the Song of Songs. And we sing songs of praise to God. These are the verses of Hallel.

Of these three types of songs we should notice something peculiar about the Hallel songs. Hallel is a set of songs that we sing on each of the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. But it is only on Passover that we reduce some of our singing of the Hallel, omitting some of the songs. Instead, we sing what is traditionally called the “Half-Hallel.” What is the explanation for this?

Many explain that we reduce our singing because we recognize the tragic human price that our oppressors paid in order to insure our freedom. Too many innocent Egyptians died in the process of freeing the Israelites from Pharaoh’s cruelty. Ultimately we were liberated from his cruelty, but his own people had to suffer for the hardening of Pharoh’s heart. We take no pleasure and we feel no joy that this was how it had to be. At the seder we say “Dayenu!” for us it would have been enough had Pharaoh just let us go out without all the miracles and the plagues.

But let us notice what type of song we reduce. We do not reduce our songs of joy at being liberated. To ask that we not sing at our liberation and our salvation would not be a reasonable request. At the banks of Sea of Reeds we could not help but burst forth into song at finally eluding the pursuing Egyptians. And we do not reduce our songs of love to God, the Song of Songs. We seek to celebrate, cultivate and deepen the loving relationship that God and Israel share.

But, according to rabbinic commentators, by skipping parts of the Hallel, we reduce our praise of the God we love. We throw onto God our frustration and disappointment that our joy could not have been secured in a clean manner. Implicitly, by omitting some of God’s praises, we ask God why God could not have managed things differently. But, of course, the complications were really generated by human failings and human evil. So, in the midst of our jubilant celebration of our human freedom, the great gift that God has given us, we indirectly mourn the dark possibilities that freedom creates. In our moment of joy, rather than take full responsibility for our human limitations, we limit our praises for our Creator and Redeemer. How powerful this message is today with our frustrations in trying to overcome our pandemic! May our songs during this season be filled with joy and hope, so that next year, we can all be together again.