Hallel: the poetry of the Exodus

By Rabbi Elana Zelony

I love celebrating Seders. The JCRC interfaith Seder fills me with hope for harmony among neighbors. Beth Torah’s communal Seder on the second night is a warm gathering of friends. Large Seders in our home are opportunities to get to know acquaintances better. But I must admit, my favorite Seder was during the first year of the pandemic when it was just my husband and children and me. We decided to wear our pajamas and not scurry to set the table with fine china or make a multi-course meal. The relaxed atmosphere led our children to do exactly what the Haggadah is designed for: ask questions.

One question was, “What’s in that part we skip after dinner and Ima sings to herself after the guests leave?” I like to sing Hallel, which is one of the 15 steps of the Seder, but often our guests are not familiar with it, so our custom is to skip to Elijah’s cup and “Next year in Jerusalem” to accommodate them. It’s a shame to skip Hallel, though, because it retells the Exodus in poetry.

Psalm 114 says, “When Israel came out of Egypt…the sea saw them and fled…mountains skipped like rams.” This is the moment of redemption in my mind: not when the Israelites closed the doors of their hovels and took their first step of their journey, but crossing to a safer shore. The very waters and hills moved to bring Israel into freedom.

Psalm 118 says, “From the straits I called to God. God answered me in a wide-open place.” The word for straits is related to the word for Egypt in Hebrew. Straits elicit images of narrowness. The psalm reminds us that just as the Israelites escaped the confines of Egypt geographically, we too can be released from what constricts us spiritually and find ourselves in a more expansive place.

If you skip Hallel, perhaps you’d consider including it this year. Maybe even do a little research on it to share with the people gathered at your Seder table. I recommend Sefaria.org or other Jewish websites. Your synagogue library probably has books on the Psalms that you could borrow. There are recordings on YouTube that can teach you the beautiful tunes. Perhaps you’ll start a new tradition.

In 2020 when it was just the four of us, no one joined me in Hallel even after my enthusiastic answer to their question. However, the clatter of dishes being rinsed was softer and the children didn’t peel away into their rooms. Everyone listened as I sang, “My strength is the Song of God and God is my salvation.” (Psalm 118:4)

May our Seders this year bring us new questions, new knowledge and perhaps new songs of praise for God. Chag sameach.

Rabbi Elana Zelony leads Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson. She is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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