Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

The Joys of Praying Hallel

אבן מאסו הבונים הייתה לראש פינה

The stone the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

I love to davan “Hallel.”  Hallel, the Psalms of praise Jews sing on the three Pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) and on Rosh Hodesh (the new moon/new month), rejoice in the ways that Gd redeems us – and the ways we, davka, rejoice.  The word Hallel means “praise,” (Halleluyah means, in fact, “praise “Yah,” Gd), and these poems of praise, Psalms 113 – 118, do more than just say “Thanks, Gd.”  Rather, they tell of how the mountains skipped like rams when we, the Jewish people, were redeemed from Egypt.  They remind us that the dead cannot praise Gd; only we, the living, who have reached out the Holy One, who have experienced Gd’s Presence, Gd’s chesed, Gd’s loving kindness – only we can praise Gd.

Near the end of the Hallel service, we ask Gd to open for us the “gates of righteousness,” that we might enter to thank the Holy One.  And then comes a section of Psalm 118 wherein we sing each verse 21-24  twice.  For me, these verses reflect steps toward the joy of true praise.

“I thank you, Gd, for you have answered me.” It is scary to reach out to what, in one of Gd’s Hebrew names, is called “the Place.”  The idea, as Rabbi Nachman of Brastlav taught, is that instead of picturing Gd’s place as residing somewhere in the world – in the Temple in Jerusalem, perhaps, or even in our local shul – we should rather understand that the world is in Gd’s place.  HaMakom – Gd’s is the place of the world:  we are located within Gd.  One might see this image as, l’havdil, a pregnant woman and her unborn, wanted, precious baby:  Gd is all around us, sheltering us as we grow, mature, become ourselves.  There is almost no need to reach out to Gd, because Gd is right here, connected to us.  Our prayers, then might be a sort of reverse umbilical cord, connecting us back to the source of life.

And yet.  We do not always experience this connection, this intimacy with Gd.  Sometimes, it is hard to reach out to Gd, because we feel so alone, frightened, abandoned.  Our prayers stretch out like a child’s hand, searching for a mother’s guidance, a father’s reassuring grasp.

What if nothing is there?

For all of us, I believe, there are times when we pray, when we call out to Gd, and experience silence in return.  I open myself up to the Holy One, and find emptiness in return.  In despair, I cry out.

מין המצר קרראתי יה ענני במרחב יה

“From the depths of my despair, I cry out to Gd,” Psalm 118 says.  And what happens?  The psalmist reassures us, “Gd will answer by setting me free.”

What happens when I don’t feel that response?  When, it is not just silence, but worse.  When I reach out from the depths of my depression, only to find myself at the edge of an abyss, coming face to face with nothingness?

מין המצר קרראתי יה ענני במרחב יה

“From the depths of my despair, I cry out to Gd,” Where is Gd’s response?

Part of the experience, the delight, for me of davaning Hallel, is the singing of it, in my congregation, the memories of  reciting it with my daughter next to me, the two of us happily harmonizing together.  Because we both speak Hebrew, the words of praise have meaning to us, bringing us joy, while the melodies – often known as “mi’Sinai tunes, מסנאי tunes so traditional, so ancient, no one knows their origin; they must have come from Sinai – the tunes are happiness in themselves.  I cry out and Gd answers – of course that is something to sing about.  The words are an affirmation of religious life, and while Gd may not answer every time, while I am singing with my community, that is answer enough.

And so, yes, “thank you, Gd for this answer,” that I might sing Your praises and remember happy times in shul with my family, my friends, my community, singing just these words.

And the next line we repeat:

אבן מאסו הבונים הייתה לראש פינה

The stone the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

What an amazing idea!  For someone who often feels small, depressed, worthless – this verse gives me hope. Although I may not find value in myself, Gd will.  In my depression, I would throw myself away, hide from society and myself, kill myself even.  But that is not Gd’s way.  Gd creates each of us in Gd’s own image, making every person – even me! – b’tzelem elokim, in the image of the Holy One Blessing.  And that means every person, those of obvious import and those who sell themselves short, those we love and those we do not know or care for –each person has a place in the world, unique and infinitely valuable.  The chief cornerstone.  It could be me.  It could be the person next to me.  Who knows?  But imagine the world we could create together if we would treat one another through the lens of this verse:  each person, unknowingly, the chief cornerstone.

And then:  this is Gd’s doing:  is it not amazing?! The Psalmist continues.

Look around.  And do it again.  You are standing, or sitting, as you are able.  I am breathing, in and out.  Just that is remarkable, although I rarely remember to remark upon it.  I am reading from my siddur, I am singing, I am remembering other joyous times of singing this very verse.  Take a moment for radical amazement, the Psalmist says.  It may not be possible to live every moment that way, but take this moment – and, since we sing the verse twice, do it again.  Take the moment of singing to be amazed, and then, bring that radical amazement back into daily life, just for a moment, to see how gratitude and wonder might change how the world looks, and how I feel.

זה היום עשה יי נגילה ונשמחה בו

This is the day the Holy One has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

And now, as we near the end of Hallel, the Psalmist shifts the focus of the joy.  While we start by praising Gd, for the wonders Gd has done, now, the Psalmist exclaims, the best way to praise Gd for the everyday wonders around us – the day Gd has made (not just redemption from Egypt, but today, with all its faults and deficits, its warts and pain) – the way to rejoice in Gd, is to rejoice in creation.  Gd has made today; let us enjoy it.  Creation is ultimately good; let us find the good within it.  And even when I am depressed, somehow, the climax with verse cheers me; the hopeful nature of the words, the upbeat melody – these combine to lift me out of my darkness and remind me of the light that permeates creation.

Praising Gd, it turns out, might help me find something to praise in my life, in myself, as well.  And so, I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, whenever the Hebrew calendar so commands.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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