If a father sings Taylor Swift songs in the car, but there isn’t a teenager there to be embarrassed by it, does it sound as bad? I assume it does, yes. It’s less fun, but it sounds just as bad. I have been blessed with a real appreciation for music and a love of singing and with no ability to make the sounds in my head come out of my mouth. That said, this has never stopped me from singing, sometimes enthusiastically and publicly. It has just stopped me from singing well.
I thought about that at the end of the second seder this year. We had a surprisingly large group of people still left at the table with me as we sang about the proverbial stick being burned up by fire after it hit the doomed ox in everyone’s favorite Chad Gadya. It was loud, it was fun, and I assume it was off key. It might come as a surprise to learn that Chad Gadya is NOT the last song of seder night. Actually, there is a custom to recite Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) after the seder. Shir Hashirim is a beautiful sefer of love poetry that allegorically describes the relationship between the people of Israel and the Creator, and it is an uplifting and inspiring way to end such a powerful night.
I got to thinking about the role of songs and singing in Passover in general and about the role of song for me and my family this year in particular. You see, whereas we have just as much reason to rejoice with all the Jewish people as we read about the crossing of the sea and the Az Yashir song, we have special reason for our own song of thanks giving – Shua is going back to yeshiva.
A word of background – my third son Shua, always the object of so much of our attention and love, was having a great year at Aish HaTorah’s Gesher program in Jerusalem this year, when he fell off a cliff. Not a metaphorical cliff mind you, a literal cliff. He fell 60 feet off a narrow path near the Keshet cave and broke both his legs. That was almost 5 months ago. Five months filled with meeting new people like Omar the nurse and Eli Rowe at Jet911. Five months filled with nerve pain and rehab pain and gabapentin. Months filled with gratitude to the many members of our circle of friends and our community that have helped, and if I’m being honest, some sense of feeling irked and let down by some people too.
The worst times were times when my son’s pain was excruciating and there was very little left that we could do to help. There is no feeling quite like being helpless to do anything to make the pain go away, but having every aspect of your being on fire with a need to help. The best day may have been the first day he started to walk in rehab, when it felt like we had reached the beginning of the end. Or it may have been the first day he joined us in shul and made the blessing of thanksgiving after being called for an Aliya to the Torah. It felt like his second bar mitzvah, at least to me. I’m not Pollyanna-ish, or holy, enough to say that every day was a blessing. Some days were horrific. For an 18 year old full of bravado and verve to not be able to adjust his own legs in bed and to be so reliant on others for so much was hard for him and it was hard imagining what it felt like to him. And also, we understand the amazing gift we were given. Our son is alive! He can (mostly) walk! He can go back to yeshiva! It makes me want to sing.
On the seventh day of Passover we’ll read about the crossing of the sea in shul. The seventh day of Pesach IS the anniversary of that event so that makes sense. The haftorah for the day is the 22 chapter of 2 Samuel (or Shmuel Bais as we say in my home town). It’s a rather surprising choice for the haftorah, I think. (1) The Haftorah is a song as well; sung by David towards the end of his life. “And David spoke the words of this song to Hashem on the day that Hashem delivered him from the hand of his enemies and the hand of Saul.”
What fascinates me is that this song, so very personal and particular to David is that it is counted by the sages as one of the 10 songs that will be sung during all of history. It is equal in that regard to the Song of the Sea, the Shira in Ha’azinu at the end of Moshe’s life, to Shlomo’s Shir Hashirim, song of songs, and to the song the Jewish people will sing when we are finally saved by Moshiach. That’s surprising to me. Obviously the sages see here that this is not just about David but that this song is a model for everyone to see Hashem’s providence in their own life.
David’s life was complicated to say the least. His story starts as being the runt in a family of greatness and leaders. He is at first rejected by his father and brothers as totally unworthy and without getting into the midrashic details, he was “unplanned” shall we say. And his life has more than its shares of ups and downs. Chosen to serve the king, hunted by the king, military hero and marries a princess, chased, hunted, slandered, has to leave his wife for years. Starts new dynasty, son rebels. Wants to build the temple, told yes, then told no. He had children die, his son raped his daughter, and then that son is murdered by a different son. And lest you think, well it all worked out in the end; at the end of his life he was able to look back and see how everything fell into place. That’s not true. Just before he passes, he instructs his son on how to deal with his unfinished business. It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. And yet he writes in this song – In my distress I would call upon Hashem and to my God I would call, and from His abode he would hear my voice, my cry in his ears. This song is a song about how David found faith, and found strength and found a profound sense of having been heard as a result of his troubles.
Perhaps this is what the sages are telling us by listing this song of David’s together with the other great moments of history. Equal in weight to the moments of national Divine Providence are the moments of personal Divine Providence. Equal in measure to the Song of the Sea is the Song of Seeing G-d in Day to Day Struggle. David’s life was a model of successes and failures, some private and some public, and a model of a life of struggle and hard work that was blessed by G-d. And David’s seeing that help and singing about it is perhaps UNSURPRISINGLY one of the great messages of Passover.
So today we sing. Off key, out loud, publicly, proudly and cacophonously – thank you Hashem for all the many miracles you have bestowed on us. Perhaps there is no one in the car to hear me sing it, and perhaps it is better that was, but I feel the need to say:
It only you would have given us one more video chat, if only you would have allowed us to be by his bedside, if only you would have allowed us to feel the love and care of our friends and community, if only you would have given our son friends and teachers that cared and came, if only you would have sent Drs. Norman and Rovitsky and Pollak, and nurses Racheli and Omar and Stephen and the PT Marina to care for him, if only you had connected us to Eli Rowe and Jet911 to bring him home, if only you hhad him teaching students about davening every day, if only he would have been able to take small tentative steps, if only he could walk upright and unassisted, if only he could return to yeshivah to learn your Torah, it would have been enough for us to have to say thank you. How much more so, now that you have done all these things, that our gratitude is deep and overflowing. We see Your hand in the success of his hard work and the skill and care of his medical team. We are grateful and so we sing.
(1) As I was gathering my thoughts together for this blog post I started to think that it was sounding familiar so I searched through my computer to see if I did this already. It turns that that I used much of this insight in a dvar Torah / sermon that I delivered this past fall at Beth Tfiloh. Apparently the haftorah for Parshas Ha’azinu, the penultimate parsha in the Torah, is also the 22 chapter of 2 Samuel. So I learned something new today!