Learning to Praise
Shabbat shel Pesach 5776
I want to explore a topic with you that may be foreign. In fact, the topic is surprisingly foreign for a spiritual and religious community like ours. The topic is praise.
How is praise a foreign concept? After all, what are we doing here tonight, celebrating the coming of Shabbat and the close of Passover, if some element of what we do together through our prayer is not praise? Praise is foreign, because something is blocking our path to it. We are witness to an eclipse. The sun remains, yet another thing gets in the way. Something is blocking the light, causing us to be distant observers, rather than residents.
“Rabban Gamliel used to say: In every generation a person must regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt. Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol, and adore the One Who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and us; God brought us forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption. Therefore let us say before the Eternal God, Hallelujah!” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5)
We know that word: Hallelujah. It’s a foreign word, awkward to say, isn’t it? Doesn’t that word belong to our Christian friends. Yes, they have that word, too, but Halleujah is our’s as well. It’s a word that should roll off our tongues.
Hallelujah is Hebrew, from the root Hallel, meaning to praise. When we say Hallelujah, we are saying Praise to God: “Let everything that breaths praise God, Hallelujah” (Psalm 150:6) When we offer up our prayers, we pray in three modes: thanks, petition, and praise. We give thanks opportunities realized, like with our Sh’hechiyanu. There is power in giving thanks for good occurrences, while other prayers contain powerful requests. Our Mi Sh’beirach l’Cholim asks God to grant complete and speedy healing for those whom we love. There is power in asking something of God, for knowing that we can turn to God in a time of need. In doing so we affirm a belief that I am, that we are, not alone.
Thanks and petition we do well, but it’s the third category, praise, that concerns me. It strikes me that we–as a broad Jewish community—have forgotten how to praise. We Jews are not good praisers. We experience the eclipse from praise in toto. We haven’t done a good job as a community teaching one another how to pray. Even in traditional circles, the effect is too often about getting through the prayers rather than experiencing them. All kevah, little kavanah. How can that be? What is the thing that is causing this eclipse? Skepticism.
Skeptical philosophy teaches that certain, absolute knowledge of something is impossible. How can we sing praises to God when we are unsure that God exists? This is a real challenge. Skepticism has run rampant within the Jewish community for generations now. It is to blame for this eclipse. Let every living thing praise God’s name: Such is an empty phrase when we are unsure that God’s name has any meaning. Our communal skepticism is keeping us from being in relationship with God, and makes that word Hallelujah seem so foreign.
The skepticism is understandable for two reasons: First, it’s a byproduct of our own success. With our emphasis on university education, these institutions taught us how to think critically and how to push back when the data does not confirm the hypothesis. Second, we are a post-Holocaust generation. Too often,when speaking of God,we get stuck when we ask the question, “But how can you say that after Auschwitz?” The Holocaust was the profound communal trauma of recent memory. Like the Psalmist singing, “By the waters of Babylon there we sat and wept,” how are we to sing God’s praises after Auschwitz?
Nonetheless, we should take issue with this skepticism. We should find these doubts troubling, because they push us away from the possibility of experiencing our own, personal redemption. Why does Auschwitz prevent us from a true experience with the Transcendent? At the close of his book Renewing the Covenant, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz z”l wrote about relationship that he developed with God: “As an adult, I have often been conscious of the Transcendent coming directly into my life. Sometimes its presence has been fairly clear and definite; mostly it has been rather general and unspecific; always, as I have reflected on it, it has been unspectacular and ordinary.”
For Borowitz, God was a real experience. Yet, God transcends proofs and arguments, God cannot be bound up in matrices of data and evidence. The greatest Jewish thinker of our generation wrote about his own personal theology saying, “I cannot ‘prove’… or even say very much about It/Her/Him.” That lack of proof creates enough doubt that many walk away from the conversation. and that is the very large thing we place before ourselves, creating the eclipse. How can we ever confront the reality of God, if we do not walk a path toward the possibility of God? To put it in Borowitz’s language, “I have become skeptical of skepticism and remain confident that this 1 I confront is real.”
I, too, know God to be real. and I felt that two Sunday’s ago, while traveling with our Confirmation Class down to the South, for our annual trip with Etgar 36. The purpose of the trip was to teach the students about the Civil Rights Movement, to visit the sites and meet some of the individuals involved in the movement. We also ate at the Waffle House. To close out our weekend together, we attended services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the congregation that King, King’s father, and King’s grandfather all pastored. It was an incredible experience, and a powerful reminder about what it means to really praise.
As we filed into the back pews of this massive church, the service began with incredible gospel music. They began with a single line, in a simple tune, singing “God is awesome.” and from there, that one line built up and up and up. It was a niggun of sorts with simple words and a powerful message. God is awesome. They sang that one line for what must have been ten minutes. In the space between the words, I found myself reading in other messages, my own midrash of sorts on the verse, telling of God’s awesomeness: Because God is awesome, I know I am not alone. I am loved by an unending love. My burdens are not mine alone. I do not have to carry them myself. As I wander, I am not lost. Yes, my father was a wandering Aramean, and we are strangers in a strange land, exiled, far from home. But God redeemed us, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. So, God is awesome.
As the single line was sung over and over again, I looked around the congregation. Congregants were lifting their hands up as they sang out. Some stood, swaying. This community knew how to praise. They were not eclipsed. Skepticism played no role in this moment. How can it be that we as Jews feel the eclipse of God, where praises get caught in our throats; yet, those whose community too knows a narrative of slavery, bondage, and constriction, can be so open? It was beautiful to witness: This was a church of pray-ers, of God-fearing people. They knew they were in relationship with God, and that God was in relationship with them. When they sang Hallelujah, they meant it. I looked at our confirmation students, how they were reacting to the experience. They were wrapt up in it. I fear that I brought a group of Jewish children to the South, and brought back a bunch of Baptists.
We have much to learn from our Christian friends. Many of them live with a spiritual confidence of God’s involvement in their lives. They accept their personal redemption. Those are not empty words recited in ceremony once a year. Because of this, each Sunday, they sing out those words of praise. Because of this, they know that no matter what comes, they are not alone. We have profound spiritual work to do. We need to re-learn how to praise God’s name freely, to become unblocked, and to be unafraid to name the Ineffable Name that is in our lives.
Rabban Gamliel taught that in response to our personal redemption we are obligated to give thanks and praise to God, to sing Hallelujah. This weekend, we put away our Passover dishes, and return to the regular plates and silverware. We toss out—thank God—the bread that has afflicted us all week long, and go back to our challah-loving ways. But let’s not let Passover get too far from us. Let’s remember that we, ourselves, have been personally set free from Egypt. And in response, we are to freely say Hallelujah.