April 21, 2022

Hallel – Freedom Song


By Harris Bor

Philosophy has its place, but sometimes, to effect real change a full physical and emotional engagement is needed. The Seder represents such engagement on a national scale. We are told that each person should see him or herself as having come out of Egypt. That is, to feel what it’s like to have been a slave in Egypt and saved by the ultimate power, and to embrace the expectation and weight of responsibility implicit in that encounter. 

Everything at the Seder is directed to reliving that experience, to awakening feelings of gratitude and a sense of purpose and destiny. Hence, the questions we ask, the foods we eat, the stories we tell, the songs we sing. The goal is not just physical redemption – freedom from servitude and tyranny – but the attainment of an inner freedom, a right to determine one’s own destiny. 

We do not, however, desire unlimited autonomy, but recognise that our own desires must be checked by the needs of society. Our recent experience with Covid-19 has brought this home. The loss of freedom brought about by the pandemic dented our well-being and motivation. We wanted to resist the laws imposed upon us, but also understood their role in ensuring public safety. In every crisis and disaster there is a trade-off between freedom and security. We live with that tension every day. The Haggadah is sensitive to this need for balance. It encourages spontaneity, within a defined structure, poetry with form. 

Take for example, the requirement to recite Hallel at the Seder, the prayer of thanksgiving based on Psalms 113-118. We recite Hallel on many festivals and Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon). However, unlike the Hallel of festivals, the Hallel we say at the Seder is not preceded by a blessing. It is said in our homes, rather than the synagogue. It is said sitting down, not standing. And it is not recited as a single unit but divided into two parts- one which is recited before the meal and one which is recited after the meal. What is going on? Why these differences?

The Talmud (TB Pesachim 117a) records that the Prophets established the recitation of Hallel on every “significant epoch” and when trouble befell the Jewish people. Some see this as establishing two separate obligations- an obligation to express gratitude for a historical event and an obligation to express gratitude in the moment of salvation itself. R. Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik (The Brisker Rov) (1886-1959) explains that the Hallel recited at the Seder falls into this latter category. It does not commemorate a historic event but is part of the Haggadah’s experiential metaverse. It arises spontaneously out of our very own release from slavery. 

Relying on Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038), Rabbi Soloveitchik further distinguishes these two Hallels. The Hallel of commemoration is read (and preceded by a blessing), whereas the Hallel of the Seder is sung (and there is no blessing). The Seder Hallel is part of an order (the Seder) and contains most of the same words as the festival Hallel, but does not follow its rigid form, and is to be sung not read, each person in their own voice and own style. Poetry and form. Freedom and security. The individual and community.

Song is the voice of the oppressed and newly free. It emerges unprompted, communicates value, lifts the spirits, and crosses boundaries. In an epigraph, Dorothy Cotton (1930-2018), an American civil rights activist, describes the significance of song for the 1950s/1960s Civil Rights Movement in which she participated: “After we were attacked, we’d come back to the church, and somehow always we’d come back bleeding, singing “I love everybody”… the  more we sing it, the more we grow in our ability to love people who mistreat us so bad.” Hallel does not require us to love those who mistreat us, but does move us beyond hate towards a place of hope and gratitude, and from darkness to a great light.