“You find three verses [two in this week’s portion] that command you to rejoice in the Feast of Tabernacles….For Passover, however, you will not find even one command to rejoice. Why not?” Several explanations are offered in the commentary for the variations of joy-related commandments (there is one command to rejoice for Shavuot). Each explanation suggests important ideas about the calendar, including the upcoming fall holidays, and reciting Hallel throughout the year.
(For more on the festival cycle, see, e.g., Michael Strassfield’s article at My Jewish Learning.)
The Ravnizky and Bialik passage (above) concludes:
…Scripture gives no command to rejoice even once during Passover because the Egyptians died during the Passover. Therefore you find that, though we read the entire Hallel on each of the seven days of Tabernacles [an “altogether joyful” feast per Deut. 16:15], on Passover we read the entire Hallel only on the first day and the night preceding it. Why not on the other days of the festival? Because of “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thy heart be glad when he stumbleth” (Prov 24:17).
— Bialik & Ravnitzky (499:111)
A related explanation, based on a Talmudic midrash, appears in My People’s Passover Haggadah (vol. 2):**
R. Yochanan went on to say that the ministering angels wanted to come together to recite a song of praise at the time of the parting of the sea, but God protested, “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you wish to recite a song!” (Meg. 10b). The Kol Bo [medieval, France/Spain] …quoted this midrash to explain why we recite an abbreviated Hallel during Pesach week (after the first two days) rather than the full Hallel that we recite during Sukkot week. The diminished Hallel, he explains, reflects God’s rebuke of the angels and the consequent diminution of our loud praise of God.
— p. 177, My People’s Haggadah (vol. 2)
The festival cycle’s narrative/historical arc — from Liberation from Egypt to Revelation in the Desert to (final) Redemption — begins with prayers that recognize the cost of freedom. Then, after the seven-week semi-mourning of the omer — which links Passover with Shavuot — we celebrate the giving of the Torah; we “rejoice before the LORD” on the festival of Shavuot with a full (Egyptian) Hallel.
“Because of its association with history,” R. Jonathan Sacks says in the Koren Siddur* commentary on Hallel, “Hallel is not said on Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur, days dedicated less to national remembrance than to judgment, repentance and forgiveness.”
Only Sukkot, the festival of Redemption, is celebrated with complete joy and an entire week of full Hallel.
But the Hallel psalms themselves carry “the theme of confrontation with death,” says Arthur Green (“personal spirituality”) in My People’s Passover Haggadah.** “The psalmist has looked death in the face, cried out to God, and been redeemed. This personal struggle with mortality is woven together with the tale of the people’s redemption, ‘when Israel went forth from Egypt.'” (p. 164)
Awaiting the Harvests
The Bialik and Ravnitzky passage above explains that rejoicing is not complete when the fate of crops is still uncertain. At Passover, “judgment is being passed on field crops, and no man knows whether the year will bring forth crops or not.” At Shavuot, there is one command to rejoice (Deut. 16:10-11), because the field crops, but not trees, have been harvested. By Sukkot, however, “when both field crops and fruits of the tree have been brought into the house, three commands to rejoice are set down”:
—“And thou shalt rejoice in the feast’ (Deut. 16:14);
—“And thou shalt be altogether joyful” (Deut. 16:15);
—“And ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev. 23:40).
What we now call the “high holidays,” were, in the agricultural cycle, preparation for “The Festival,” celebrating the full series of harvests. Sukkot’s season of joy entailed struggles and judgment of several forms.
Perhaps we can also understand the narrative cycle in a similar way: At Passover, we are finally free to serve God — and we celebrate our liberation, if only for a moment — but we face many challenges, without many resources, before we can reach the Promised Land. At Shavuot, we have the Torah and the Covenant but are still far from the Promised Land. At Sukkot, we have the Torah and the Covenant, we’ve survived the 40 desert years, and we’re on the edge of the Promised Land and are “altogether joyful,” celebrating a glimpse of redemption.
At this point in the narrative, with Simchat Torah soon to bring the story round to Genesis again, we now know that the ultimate Promised Land will always be on the other side of the river. Elul and the ten Days of Awe provide a 40-day period for reconciling with ourselves, others and God, so that we can hope to fulfill the commandment to be “altogether joyful” in those temporary dwellings with God.
Yearning and Survival
When the Temple stood, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen (“Chasidic voices”) argue in My People’s Passover Haggadah, “loving God was a public and tangible act, and we did not need to worry about inwardness as much as we do today.” Citing Psalms 118:66 — “God is Adonai, and He has shined light upon us. Bind the festival offering [time] with cords [yearning for connectedness with God] to the altar [place]” — they say: “Thus, when we bind the generations, we bind our inwardness today with our ancestors’ loving actions in the past, effectively fusing both dimensions of time together.” (p.185)
Green, elaborating on the mortality theme of the psalms (above), writes:
As the tale is passed down from one generation to the next, we inevitably think about those empty places at our table [seder table, in the book’s context; in the sukkah, or at another festive setting, as well?], belonging to those who told us the tale and now are no longer with us. We think of the future…tables of our children and grandchildren, when we too will be present only as a past memory.
Paradoxically, this is the closest we Jews can come to a taste of immortality….The meaning Judaism gives to our lives lies mostly in transmitting Torah to children and grandchildren. We have a tale to tell, a message to pass down. As we look at our descendants — both physical and spiritual — sitting around the table, we dare to think that the message will survive.
— Green, My People’s Passover Haggadah, pp.177-178
Hallel itself — whether recited on Passover or another occasion — offers an amazing braid of the national and the personal, celebration and awareness of cost, gratitude for survival and yearning for closeness with God. No one tune or video could possibly capture this variety (so I won’t stick one in here, as I am wont)…and there are too many great Hallel tunes (not to be confused with tunes for Great Hallel, Psalm 136) to suggest one here.
In closing, however, here is an interview with Pamela Greenberg, who recently published a non-denominational translation* of the psalms.
* For complete citations and details, see Source Materials.
** For details on My People’s Passover Haggadah, see Passover References.
To the best of my knowledge, Hallel is not (yet) discussed in the My People’s Prayer Book series (see Source Materials); while the commentary cited here is offered in the context of the seder, it is more widely applicable. Moreover, the discussions about “singing a new song” — shir [masculine “song”], shirah [feminine “song”], and/or psalm — at the seder, versus reciting Hallel with a blessing, as well as the relationships of the psalms to adjacent parts of the seder are helpful in understanding Hallel more generally.