“When do we eat?” my Aunt Florence would always ask 15 minutes after we began the seder.
It is a source a disagreement in my family whether we should start early or late on seder night. Some argue that we should start before nightfall because they just can’t stay up so late; they worry that when the meal is finally served, their faces will fall into their soup.
Others say that we should take naps so we can begin properly, go late into the night and after all the prayers and songs are sung, we will end maybe at 2 a.m. Then we will get bragging rights the next morning at shul as to whose ended the seder the latest.
It turns out that the debate is an ancient one centering around whether one says the Hallel or not. Beit Shammai ruled that one should aim to sing the Hallel at midnight (before the meal) because this was the exact time the Israelites felt that the redemption from Egypt was truly in their hands. God had finally defeated the Egyptians with the death of the firstborn. The Israelites then celebrated by tasting the meat of the sacrificial lamb after midnight!
Beit Hillel questions whether Hallel should be said at all because the exact time of the redemption did not occur until noon the next day when they actually departed. He concludes that we should say just the first two psalms of Hallel sometime on seder evening before the meal and it doesn’t have to be midnight. The psalms (113 and 114) conclude with “Bzeit Yisrael Mimitzrayim” (“When Israel came out of Egypt”) to praise God for the next day’s redemption. No formal blessing before Hallel is necessary.
Another mishna adds to Hillel’s ruling saying that we “complete” the Hallel after the meal with four more psalms. Scholars believe this broken structure preserves Hillel’s ruling while reflecting the fixed form of the complete Hallel sung at Sukkot and Shavuot. In any case, we end up with a broken Hallel interrupted by the sacred feast.
I’ve often reflected on that brokenness as family members fall asleep on couches or retire to their rooms following the meal. Is our praise somehow mitigated by our feast? Or does the brokenness point to the incompleteness of our soul’s journey? Songs of the spirit interrupted by the desires of the flesh. When do we eat?
The Chassidim have a saying: “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” It occurs to me that this wholeness is none other than our capacity to contain brokenness within our souls. That brokenness is our wounds, our despair, our anger, our fears, our loneliness. The typical Israelite slave carried this brokenness prior, during and after the redemption. He carried that brokenness into the world as a gift that he would later share with others and other nations. If I am lonely, says the Jew, I know where to find others who dwell in darkness. If I am wounded, says the Jew, I know how to be with you in your pain.
Leonard Cohen, in his beautiful song “Hallelujah” says that “Love is not a victory march – it is a cold and a broken Hallelujah.” If God is love then we can never completely ask God to “pour out your wrath upon the nations that do not know You” (Haggada). It is not a victory march. We break Hallel before we break bread (matza) to represent that present day redemption comes with an embrace of our own brokenness as part of our soul’s capacity to bring love to God’s world. Be’tayavon.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)