These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Hallel, A Journey Through the Wilderness of Emotions

Posted on March 23, 2015 by Geo Poor

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My favorite service of the whole year is Hallel, a special service we add to certain holidays and to the seder. Hallel has a strange structure. It starts out by saying we are commanded to praise God. Why would be commanded to praise? Does praise really even count if it is not done by choice? This command is followed by praising God, remembering the Exodus from Egypt, praising God as different from the idols of other peoples, stating that God remembers us and has heard our pleas, and then logically thanking God. Up until here, the service is fairly linear – it follows a logical order.

But then, Hallel continues: we repeat that God answered when we called out from our difficult times, and we repeat that we were saved – two steps that seem unnecessary here since we already said these things. In fact, we just finished saying them! Why are we backtracking? Oddly, we then request twice, “Please, God, save us, please!” If we’ve already been saved, and have already sung about this salvation in these long psalms, why this short line repeating twice what we had already just said?

The line reminds me of two prayers in the Torah. One is the prayer of Moshe, in one sentence, crying out to God, “please, God, heal her please!” (Numbers 12:13) The line lacks the brilliant eloquence and the wordiness of the psalms we say in Hallel. Instead, we are given one short sentence, and we can almost hear the emotion dripping from these five words of Moshe’s cry. That short prayer is all that Moshe needs for God to heal Miriam.

The shortness of the line in Hallel also reminds me of the cries of the enslaved Israelites (Exodus 2:23). The Israelites cry out, seemingly without words, and it is not even clear if their cries are directed towards God at all, but they are still enough to move God’s pity and begin the process of redemption.

It is hard, in everyday life, to offer as heartfelt a prayer as slaves or as Moses. It is hard to be so sincere. In order to make up for this, we tend to say many psalms and many prayers that might end up taking us further and further away from that short honest prayer of the heart.

But in Hallel, we then return to a short four-word prayer.

I think that the Hallel service, with all of its psalms is an attempt to remind us of what the emotions are with which we should be praying. Most of Hallel is a warm-up for this one line. We are commanded to say Hallel because it is intended to raise the pure emotions within us that will enable us to be truly heard by God. After pages of beautiful melody and psalm, we direct all of the emotions, all of the ideas into one line: “Ana Hashem Hoshia Na!” “Please, God, save us, please!”

And we hope that we say these four words with enough emotion. With enough heart. With enough soul.
We hope that it is true, pure prayer.