Three Thoughts on Seder Songs

1)

“Had God parted the Red Sea for us, and not caused us to pass through it on dry land” – what would have been the point? “Had God brought us before Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah” – what would have been the point?

You can ask that question, refrain-wise, all the way through that traditional Seder-night song; and there must be more to a good response than that Dayenu –“it would have been enough for us” – makes for a catchier chorus. The Seder night, as set forth in our inherited Haggadah, is a learned symposium, after all.

One traditional answer (espoused by the 12th century French Talmudist, Rabbi Shimon ben Meir, the Rashbam) is that each step along the path of redemption should be appreciated and celebrated as a miracle in and of itself, entailing its own particular blessings and possibilities. Living to see just one such miraculous step is sufficient to claim a blessed life. On the night of Passover we commemorate and relive The Exodus from Egypt; but take a closer look and we actually recall numerous wonders along that path.

In the United States, one may aptly borrow words from the Passover Haggadah, from the start of the doxology Dayenu sets up, and say, “How much the more, doubly and many times over, must we acknowledge tremendous benefice” – inasmuch as we have a Declaration of Independence proclaiming all men equal, and a Bill of Rights, and a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and a Civil Rights Act, and so on, and so forth, all the fractal elements, all along the way, that form the arc of a great journey toward Liberty and Justice for All. Any one of the resounding moments and documents may suffice for discerning the great principle – and what manifold and abundant blessing it is to have all of them. Rather than “what would have been the point,” a better alternative chorus may be “we might have taken it from there” – and maybe our capacity to do so is the real miracle revealed in each sequential step.

2)

“Who knows Thirteen?” Twelve, anyone? Eleven? Well, perhaps – but how about One? It may seem that the challenge in Echad Mi Yodea – “Who Knows One?” – is the pedagogical counting game of recalling which traditional particular corresponds to each higher and higher number. (For a French Canadian and Roman Catholic version of that fun, and of the song, consider the second half of this recording.)

It may be, though, that the greater difficulty is to recall and realize divine Oneness in the face of ever-increasing multiplicity. If that seems a facile observation, or a spurious overlaying of mystical meaning upon the refrain of a children’s song, consider Maimonides’ wording in his teaching regarding one of the ways in which our telling of the Passover story may take us “from ignominy to praise,” as the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) prescribes. “One begins by recounting how, in the days of Terach and prior to that, our ancestors erroneously strayed after insubstantiality and pursued multiple divinities, and one ends with the true principle of faith, recounting how the Blessed Holy One has separated us from such error, drawing us toward the actuality of divine Unity.” (Hilkhot Chametz Umatza 7:4) We still are on that journey.

3)

On our Festivals, Jewish tradition prescribes Hallel, a series of Psalms (113-118) that revolves around thanksgiving and Hallelujah. The Passover night features the oddest recitation of Hallel anywhere in Jewish liturgy. We recite the first two psalms of the sequence, 113 and 114, leading up to these Pslams with considerable fanfare – they are, in a sense, the destination of our whole Exodus story and journey “from ignominy to praise.” Then we suspend Hallel, while we wash our hands, eat Matza and bitter herbs, and enjoy a full course supper. And then – if we are at a table where each station of the Seder is observed – following our blessings after the meal, we pick up with Psalm 115, we complete the Hallel, and we add Psalm 136 (which the Talmud calls ‘The Great Hallel’). And, along the way, from 113 to 118 and 136 – with the meal wedged in the midst – we say almost every possible benediction from Talmudic tradition that may apply to the recitation of these praise-songs. What gives?

The key is in remembering where Hallel comes from, and the original context of the Psalms. The biblical psalter is the prayer-book, so to speak, of the Jerusalem Temple and of our ancestral sacrifices. Our earliest rabbinic Sages, who would have had living memory of the Temple as it stood, describe the psalmody of the Levites on the Temple steps – and Hallel evokes that setting.

If we go at the question of the Seder night's Hallel by saying: Why on earth do we break up our regular series of festival Psalms with the mundane activity of eating? – we may remain perplexed. However, if instead we ask: Where else in our tradition and in our history have we heard of eating a holy meal amid the sacred songs of the Psalter – we will immediately find ourselves in the situation of the Temple. Today we do not bring our Paschal offerings up to Jerusalem for sacrifice in a great national pilgrimage; but by setting our Seder meal amid the Psalms of Hallel we create a verbal facsimile of the ancient Temple. We surround our meal with the words of thanksgiving and of praise that our forebears would have heard as the sacred setting of their Passover sacrifices. In that sense, the strange Hallel of the Seder night – a ritual meal set within it – is actually the most authentic and historical Hallel of all. No wonder then that our Haggadah makes such an effort of celebrating this particular Hallel with every possible blessing.

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