Friday, March 30, 2012

To Sing is to be Redeemed

The primary antidote against isolation is the voice. The seemingly simple offering of conscious, intentional sound outside of oneself into the world is, even when expressing pain, a sign of great hope, as the act itself insists on someone or something to receive that sound.   Judaism establishes the power of the voice from the very beginning, as Torah describes the spoken word as the vehicle by which God creates the entire universe. When God desires to create a space other than God's Own Self, God does so by intoning words: "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light."(Genesis 1:2)  It is notable too that the first time our ancestors collectively connect to God in Torah (albeit seemingly unintentionally), they do so through their voices:  "…and the Israelites groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their plea from the bondage went up to God." (Ex. 2:23) And by the time our ancestors stand free and redeemed on the opposite side of the Reed Sea's shore, they vocalize their expression to God, this time intentionally and directly, through song! “Then Moses did sing, and all the Israelites with him, this song to Adonai….” (Exodus 15:1)

Indeed, the evolution of our ancestor’s pain and suffer-filled groans to their faith-filled, freedom’s song reflects not only their journey from slavery to freedom and redemption, but also their evolving relationship with the Divine.

At its best, the Seder holds this same potential for us.  In fact, the Mishnah envisioned the Seder's entire thematic arc to encompass just such an evolution: that we should begin with degradation and end with praise. (Pesachim 10:4) And as Jews, there is no better way to express praise but through song. 

So much of the Passover Seder is written in poetic verse or has evolved over time to be voiced in song.  Of course, we are familiar with the traditional melody of the Four Questions, the repetitive rhythm of the recitation of the Ten Plagues, the singing of Dayeinu, and the rousing “song-fest” that encompasses the conclusion of the Seder itself*, just to name a few places where the actual telling of the story occurs in song. 
The other major song of the Seder is, of course, Hallel. Hallel, made up primarily of Psalms, flanks the Seder meal, creating central foundations of “Songs of Praise” anchoring the entire Seder experience.  Its recitation or singing is introduced by the following passage:  

Therefore we owe it to God: to thank, to sing, to praise and honor,
to glorify and bless, to raise up and acclaim
the One who has done all these wonders for our ancestors and for us.

God took us from slavery to freedom,
from sorrow to joy,
from mourning to festivity,
from thick darkness to great light,
from enslavement to redemption!
Let us sing before God, a new song:
(introduction to Hallel "lfichach..." as translated by Noam Zion).

When we read this, we place ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, and we rejoice for the redemption they experienced.  But when we include ourselves in the subject of the text, as it reads, ‘God took us…”, we come to see that not only are we celebrating the redemption our ancestors experienced, but we might also be singing out praise for every redemptive experience we’ve had and even the Redemption yet to come.    If the text were only referring to the Exodus redemption, a more appropriate conclusion to the passage above would be to use Exodus 15:1, “then Moses sang…”  Instead, we are called to sing before God; and our song is not to be one that has been sung before, but a new one! 

So our ancestors sang.  Not just those at the Reed Sea, but every generation that has come before us. So must we.  To sing is to enliven the spirit of Redemption that our ancestors experienced.   To sing is to connect to the generations between then and now in a way that insists that we have come from deep and nourished roots.  To sing is to tap into the most profound yearnings of our soul and offer those melodies into the harmony that abounds from the voices of countless others.  To sing is to know what true freedom really means.  To sing is to hope.  To sing is to affirm that we are not alone. To sing is to be redeemed.

Indeed, this year and every year, let us sing a new song before God.  Hallelujah!

*some do this before Nirzah and some after depending up family practice.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

B’chol Dor va’Dor – In Each Generation

“…the Hagaddah has been translated more widely, and reprinted more often, than any other Jewish book … the Haggadah is our book of living memory. We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy. Here we are, embarking on an ancient, perennial attempt to give human life – our lives – dignity.” – Jonathan Safran-Foer

Renowned author Jonathan Safran-Foer wrote these powerful words in the introduction to his magnificent New American Haggadah.[i] His message reflects a most powerful teaching of Passover: that through our telling and retelling of our story, we can bring light into a world of darkness, widening expanses on otherwise narrow pathways. The notion that our Passover Seder calls us to “a radical act of empathy” is a modern expression of the 2000 year old Mishna ideal: B’chol dor v’dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo kilu hu yatza mimitrazyim - In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as if he or she personally came forth from Egypt.

When we retell the Exodus story, we remember the long-ago journey from the constricted isolation and despair of slavery to the wilderness redemption of Divine connection as free people. But there is more. On Passover, we strive to see ourselves as if we actually experienced that transformation. We don’t just retell – we retroject ourselves back into the story, or better, we bring the story to us in our world as if it were happening in real time. So it is not just about going back in time, but actually about bringing the past into the present, and then calling upon us to make the story our own. So when we talk about slavery, it isn’t something we “learn” about, but something we experience. When we talk about freedom, it isn’t something relegated to the rational intellect, but it extends within and throughout the realms of emotion and spirit. When we thank God for redemption, we aren’t thanking God for redeeming our ancestors; we are thanking God for redeeming us.

But more than blending past with present, ultimately, the Seder’s purpose inspires and beckons to us to act for a better future. When we retell the story, we aren’t just acting it out as if it were happening in real time. The truth is: It IS happening in real time. The redemption isn’t over. We don’t just imagine ourselves as slaves on Passover. As Leonard Fein[ii] wrote in his response to the traditional recitation of Avadim Hayinu:

What can these words mean? We are slaves because today there are still people in chains around the world and no one can truly be free while others are in chains. Where there is poverty and hunger and homelessness, there is no freedom. Where there is prejudice and bigotry and discrimination, there is no freedom; where there is violence, torture and war, there is no freedom. And where each of us is less than he or she might be, we are not free, not yet.”
Passover is only days away, and undoubtedly as you read this, preparations are already being made for this year’s Seders set to begin on Friday evening, April 6th. As you prepare, take out your family’s Hagaddah. Look it over. Find the parts that speak to you and make sure to note those sections in your Seder. Add to your Hagaddah. If you find a poem, quote, news article, or story that resonates with the themes of Passover, include it in your Seder. And last, pick one area where freedom is absent and contribute to it, in some way, three times in the coming months before the Jewish New Year in September. Why? Jewish tradition asserts that by the time someone does something three times, it means they really mean it. To rise up from our tables at the Seder’s conclusion poised with a mission of bringing redemption is to uphold the best of Passover’s mission.

In the words of Safran-Foer again:
The Seder is a protest against despair. The universe might appear deaf to our fears and hopes, but we are not – so we gather, and share them, and pass them down. We have been waiting for this moment for thousands of years – more than one hundred generations of Jews have been here as we are – and we will continue to wait for it. And we will not wait idly.

[i] The Hagaddah is translated by the acclaimed Nathan Englander, with commentaries by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Lemony Snicket, and illustrated beautifully by Oded Ezer.
[ii] Founder of Mazon, written in 1985.