I’m Only Singing Half a Song
We are approaching the last days of Pesach, the winding down of a holiday that includes themes of redemption, salvation, leadership models, and parenting — just to name a few. It’s a formidable holiday and you would think it would build to a crescendo at the end. Instead, it seems to head toward modification of spiritual expression. There is no Seder festive meal at the end, and although labour is prohibited, we do not recite a full Hallel prayer, as we did at the beginning, but only half a Hallel. Why are we toning things down?
The last two days of Pesach are days of contrasting emotions and ethics. This last yom tov celebrates Israel safely passing through the Red Sea, being born as a people as they pass through a narrow canal on dry land with water all around them. It is powerful, it is beautiful, it speaks volumes to us of life and birth and rejuvenation and identity. It deserves our praises to God to swell within us and burst out — as shown in the book of Exodus when we emerge, take our first breath as a people, and burst into the Song at the Sea in praise of God. Where other newborns cry, we sing!
But, most of our classic midrashic texts tell us it is not a time of unbounded joy because while we are reaching exalted spiritual heights, other human beings, Egyptian soldiers, are dying. The two events are happening together and we now have contrasting emotions and ethics.
Years ago, when my kids were little, they would leave me messages around the house. Often they would find my sticky notes on my desk and use them to leave trails of communication, from note to note, that I would follow from room to room. I loved the messages, the ‘treasure hunt’ aspect of it and the game. I also began using sticky notes in a similar fashion. All was well until the youngest of them decided she wanted in on the fun. I walked into my room and saw “I lv u mma, ur th bst” written in pen, in large letters, deeply engraved in the wood of my bookshelf. The love message was beautiful and being called the best mama was the highest praise I could hope for. Clearly, the problem was she didn’t understand the safety of the sticky note and was too young to see the bigger picture of property damage or permanence. I had no idea what to do.
If I am in any way upset about the engraving, she may attach my upset to her message. If I am overjoyed with her love and praise, she may learn it is acceptable to ignore the value of someone’s property. I didn’t know how to respond since ignoring the issue only lasted so long. She quickly came into my lap and asked me if I saw her present.
I told her I loved it and held her tight.
One by one, each of the other kids came to ask me privately if I had seen ‘the etching’. I told them I saw it and loved the message. They asked if I was ok with the damage to my shelf and I told them I was not. I double messaged them. Parenting seems to put us in these places more often than we care to admit. As one parent of a newborn said to me: ‘I can’t believe that I can look at my screaming baby in the middle of the night and feel such simultaneous love and rage.’
This last holiday of Pesach emphasizes for us that spirituality is not simple, it’s not uniform and it’s not ego-centric. We are exalted by God in the same moment that others are suffering at the Divine Hand. How should we now speak to God?
There is a midrash that describes how the angels try to join Israel in singing God’s praise at the Red Sea. God silences them and tells them that while people are drowning, the angels are forbidden to sing praises. Israel does not stand above the moment, as do the angels, but within the moment, and they will praise from within. The angels proceed to ask God why Israel does not therefore say a full Hallel, a full prayer of praise to God, on the last holiday of Pesach. God answers that in spite of Israel’s salvation, ‘My creations are drowning, it is not a moment for full joy’.
Spirituality is not easy. It is an expression of our souls and our souls seek connections and exaltation. We will always be conflicted when suffering and mortality enters the picture, regardless of who’s involved.
As the last days of Pesach unfold, we are taught to bring ourselves back from the heights of Pesach and remember the complexity of the world around us. The redemptive moment of one could include the suffering of another. I learn to measure my joy.
And with all the conflicts intersecting together, I do have to admit that it’s been many years but every time I walk into my office and see the old love etching on the shelf, my heart still fills with that beautiful, flawed, sincere moment permanently carved into a bookshelf I will never give away.