Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 155

April 14, 2023 (23 Nisan 5783)

Extending Our Joy

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health. Now that we have switched back to our regular dishes and put away our leftover Matzah, I trust that you enjoyed a fantastic and meaningful Pesach festival. Please join us in the sanctuary this Saturday morning at 10:15am for Shabbat morning services, which will be enhanced as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Arnold and Alice Grodman. The Grodmans, who are beloved members of our community, will sponsor this week’s Kiddush in honor of their Simcha (joyous event). If you are not able to join us in person, please join us on our regular Zoom prayer link.

Also, this Monday evening, please join us for our annual service of commemoration, as we honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazi genocide. Our service will take place on Zoom at 7:00pm and include Maariv, Yiddish song, memorial prayers, and commemorative comments.

As a final announcement of community interest, I would like to introduce you to a new section of our weekly email, which I am calling “Shir Shel Shavua,” or Song of the Week. In this new section, you will find out about the significance and history of some favorite Hebrew, Jewish, Yiddish, or Israeli songs. Please feel free to share your favorites with Cantor Zim or me, so we can research them and share recordings to enhance each Shabbat.

To extend the joy of the festival season, please join me here in learning about a Seder favorite, Chad Gadya!

As you will recall from just a few days ago, in many homes, the Seder is not over until the group sings “Chad Gadya,“ including making the appropriate animal noises for every verse of this strange and whimsical poem. When we sing, full of food, wine, and holiday euphoria, Chad Gadya comes out sounding silly.

What if it’s really meant to be a serious work of religious poetry? As it turns out, many famous Jewish thinkers have found deep teachings of one kind or another in the song.

The original author of Chad Gadya plays on a famous Midrash (c. 500). The Aramean King Nimrod challenges our monotheistic ancestor Abraham to a theological dialogue. Nimrod suggests that Abraham should worship fire. But Abraham argues that water quenches fire, clouds bring water, wind blows away clouds, and humans can control wind through breath, so if you worship forces of nature, you might as well worship yourself. Nimrod, angry, sentences Abraham to death by fire – but God saves Abraham’s life. Hence, Chad Gadya explains, the Holy One of Blessing, can slay the Angel of Death.

The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) says that Chad Gadya is an allegory of Jewish history, showing the recurring relevance of the Exodus. Israel is the kid, and everyone else wants to destroy us, but in the end, just like in the story of Egypt, God saves us.

Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) sees Chad Gadya as an allegory about the inner journey towards psycho-spiritual refinement. In his view, one who sings Chad Gadya declares: I am the beginning seeker, bought for a blessing, whose creativity is threatened by too much rationality, which is in turn threatened by desire, which is then transformed into passion for the holy. Unfortunately, that passion for Kedusha is defeated by the body, causing me to judge others harshly, which I can, in my inner growth, temper with love, as Hashem helps me eventually perfect myself.

Modern theologian Rabbi Neil Gillman, who passed but a few years ago, says that Chad Gadya celebrates Elijah’s visit to every Seder, where he announces the End of Days, otherwise known as the coming of Mashiach (Messiah). At that time, God will triumph over everything, even death. All who once lived will come alive again.

Synthesizing these approaches, Chad Gadya expresses the essence of retelling the Exodus story in every generation. Each year, different goals drive us: answering religious questions; learning about Jewish intellectual traditions; grappling with Jewish history; hoping for a just future; growing spiritually; dealing with difficult people and more. If Chad Gadya, a mere fragment at the end of the Seder, can spark so much insight, how much more can we glean from the Seder as a whole!?!

As we enter Shabbat, and attempt to extend our joy of the season, I pray that your days are filled with song and harmony. As instructed at the conclusion of the Book of Psalms, in describing the power of music, כֹּ֣ל הַ֭נְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּ֥ל יָ֗הּ" הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃ Let all that breathes praise the LORD, Hallelujah.”

I encourage you to share your musical favorites with us so that we can continue to bring the spirit of melody to each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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