IN EVERY GENERATION, PART 3: HALLELUYAH!
Dvar Torah For Day Eight Pesach/Yiskor 5770.
Everyone, say Halleluyah! Don’t be shy, all it means is, “Praise God!” What… you don’t believe in God, or you’re not sure you do? You don’t like overt, maybe over the top, expressions of piety? You think that shouting Halleluyah is sanctimonious, posturing, self promoting, religiously preening, hypocritical? You think that you dare not shout Halleluyah when you’re a nothing, a humble nobody? Huh, look who thinks he or she is a nobody! Come on, get out of your comfort zone, stop rationalizing, live a little. Your life may not be perfect, you may even be quite unhappy right now, you may be a confirmed atheist, you may not be feeling well, you may think that this little exercise is leading us right down the path to being a…Baptist church…but so what? Stretch your vocal chords and your spirit, move your body and shout Halleluyah! Let me hear you! Halleluyah!
How ironic that a word like Halleluyah, an authentically Jewish word that comes from, and is found all over, our Bible, should be so uncomfortable for Jews to say with passion and gusto. Some of this is the result of our overall discomfort with emotion laden spiritual expression. Yet, I think that we are also uncomfortable with shouting Halleluyah because we have bought the myth that it is something that Christians do, not us. How untrue this is. Please look with me at a famous passage from the Mishnah, Judaism’s oral tradition, Tractate Pesahim, 10:5; this is a passage we have been studying together since the Shabbat preceding Pesach.
Rabban Gamliel said: “Whoever has not referred to these three matters connected to the Passover has not fulfilled his obligation (to tell the Passover story), and these are they: Passover, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.
Passover: because the Omnipresent passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt.
Unleavened bread: because our ancestors were redeemed in Egypt.
Bitter herbs: because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt.
In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally has gone forth from Egypt, since it is said (in the Torah), “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)’”
Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, honor, exalt, extol, and bless the One who performed for our ancestors and for us all these miracles. God brought us forth from:
Slavery to freedom, anguish to joy, mourning to festival, darkness to great light, subjugation to redemption.
So, we should say before God Halleluyah (that is, the psalms of Hallel, Ps. 113-118.)”
As we have been learning throughout Pesach, this teaching of Rabban Gamliel is found in its entirely in the Passover Haggadah. In the first two parts of the passage, he reminds us to talk about the ancient Passover sacrifice with its accompanying matzah and bitter herbs, so that we relive that great feast at the seder, even if we can no longer perform it ourselves. Further, our teacher asks us to place ourselves at the scene of that very first seder when, as slaves about to become free, we offered that very first paschal sacrifice in grateful preparation for liberation. Then, notice that Rabban Gamliel concludes with one more instruction. Because we owe God a huge debt of gratitude and praise for transforming us into free people, we should chant before God the Halleluyah psalms of the Hallel prayer, also known as the Egyptian Hallel because it thanks God for redeeming us from there. (In fact, Hallel is sung in two segments as part of the seder service according to the traditional Haggadah.)
I imagine Rabban Gamliel as a Baptist preacher shouting “Halleluyah, praise the Lord!” to his congregants in the pews. He jumps up and down, with sweat streaming from his beet red face as the faithful get riled up, catch the spirit, fall down, start writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues. For all we know, the context of his teaching was something akin to this: he wanted his fellow Jews not only to practice the rituals of the seder as if they were in that exact moment of liberation from Egypt. He also wanted them to feel the exhiliaration of that moment, to scream and shout Halleluyah as they charged Egypt’s gates en masse and walked out into freedom. However, it is just as likely that Rabban Gamliel exhorted us to sing the Halleluyah psalms of the Hallel because he was copying what our ancient ancestors did during the Passover sacrifice in the Holy Temple. An earlier passage of the Mishnah, Pesahim 5:7, teaches us that the Jewish pilgrims would eat the Passover in three shifts, all of which would sing the Hallel prayer as the Temple priests distributed pieces of the sacrificial meat to them. The Talmud, Tractate Pesahim 117a explains that the Egyptian Hallel goes back in time as far as the crossing of the Red Sea itself. As the Israelites embarked on their dangerous journey to freedom, the prophets among them taught them to sing Hallel as a way of asking God to protect them from trouble. After they were finally saved from Pharaoh, those prophets taught them to sing Hallel again in thanks to God for redeeming them. Thus, Rabban Gamliel’s spontaneous exhortation to his fellow Jews was actually a well thought out pedagogic strategy for –once again- helping us to relive the Passover Temple service, and by extension, that terrifying moment at the Red Sea when we were caught in that transitional space between shedding our skin of slavery and dressing ourselves in the robes of freedom.
I am drawn to the Talmud’s twofold understanding of Hallel: we chant it as we walk through breath holding, heart stopping danger; we chant it after we live through that danger. It accompanies us on both parts of our life journeys because –as the Talmud points out- its most important word-Halleuyah- compounds a command to praise (Hallelu) with a straightforward reference to God –known here by God’s Hebrew name, Yah. We are not asked or encouraged, we are commanded, to carry an attitude of praise with us wherever we are and through whatever we experience. A view of life that is suffused with praise does not usually come naturally: we have to inculcate it within ourselves through the hard work of waking each day –no matter how we feel, no matter what a day brings us- and recognizing that day as one more precious opportunity to breathe, to live, to be in this mixture of madness and magnificence that is our world, the world created by God, the never ending source of all life in all of its complexity, mystery, and imperfection. A Halleluyah perspective on the world sees God’s creative power and compassionate presence in everything: danger and redemption, sadness and joy, life and death. A Halleluyah perspective praises God for life as it is, because it is holy and worthwhile simply by virtue of being life!
In a moment, when we chant Yizkor, we will actually be reciting an extended Halleluyah. Yes, we will be remembering our loved ones who have died, some naturally in their time, and others tragically and before their time. But we will also be remembering their precious legacies, feeling their palpable, endless presence, and praising God for the people they were and the people they have helped us to become. For the love that they gave us and allowed us to give them, we say Halleluyah! For the complex, imperfect but loving relationships that we had with them, we say, Halleluyah! For our ability to remember them without the varnish of false piety, we say Halleluyah! For their having lived in our world, in God’s world, we say Halleluyah!