The work of My hands drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs? (Tal. Bavli Meg. 10b)
I find myself anticipating Pesach with mixed emotions this year.
One the one hand, after two very unusual Pesach celebrations, for many, our Pesach tables will, once again, look the way we remember them. We will be surrounded by loved ones, enjoying the company of people we have missed at this highlight of the Jewish year. There will be great joy!
Over the past two years, the rare application of the Halakha that requires one who is having seder alone to, nonetheless, ask questions to themselves, unfortunately, became commonplace. What joy it is to put that Halakha back in “mothballs”, and enjoy the noise of a full house for seder.
On the other hand, the war in Ukraine and the death and destruction that have come in its wake make celebrating - at least fully - very difficult. As the war unfolded and Pesach drew closer, I was reminded of an essay written by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg that reminded me of the balance needed in order to celebrate Pesach this year within a proper Jewish context.
Rabbi Weinberg uses this Talmud passage as his point of departure.
וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״וְלֹא קָרַב זֶה אֶל זֶה כׇּל הַלָּיְלָה״ — בִּקְּשׁוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לוֹמַר שִׁירָה, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי טוֹבְעִין בַּיָּם, וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה?
And similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states: “And they called out to each other and said” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs? This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.
Here are his powerful words: “From that moment on, Jews have no part in rejoicing as long as God’s creations are drowning. Our fate is tied to the fate of all of humanity. A day of rejoicing for the Jewish people will only come once all of civilization is redeemed. However, until that time comes, the Jews are not permitted to engage in joyous song.…You are witnesses to thousands and thousands of my creations drowning in a sea of despair and tears - how can you rejoice, how can you sit in tranquility in the face of the incessant misery that exists in humanity”
Poignantly, Rabbi Weinberg expects that “any place where a Jew sees injustice, the breakdown of harmony, justice and freedom - immediately they hear the internal declaration: 'The work of My hands are drowning at sea and you wish to sing songs?'”
What a lofty ethical requirement. Essentially, as we teach our small children, a Jewish worldview requires that we look beyond our own condition. We must recognize that we are not fully redeemed until everyone is fully redeemed.
Pesach is a Jewish national holiday. On Pesach we celebrate the formation of our nation and it may seem strange to redirect some of our focus away from that. Yet, we are not a nation that only worries about our own safety and freedom. In Rabbi Weinberg’s words: “we carry the world in our heart… When we celebrate our holiday of liberation we must not forget the suffering that is going on in the world right now. And, as we sit at our table for the seder, we must keep this idea in our hearts and pray that we will soon merit the day when the entire world is redeemed…”
The focus on universal suffering derives from Avraham, who is not only the father of Jewish theology, but also the kindler of the Jewish commitment to universal kindness. It continues with Moshe, who, the Rabbis teach, was chosen to lead the particular nation because of his concern for a wayward sheep.
This idea is embedded in the seder. Even as we eat karpas - a green vegetable reminiscent of spring, rebirth and hope, we dip it in saltwater - reminiscent of tears - to remind us that even our greatest moment of redemption is dulled as long as others are crying. This pesach, the tears I will see in the bowl will be the tears of the Ukrainian people.
As much as I will rejoice being with family this Pesach, those feelings of happiness will be muted, for how can I sing songs while so many of God’s creations are drowning in the sea.
Our Rabbis teach us (Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashana 11a)
בְּנִיסָן נִגְאֲלוּ בְּנִיסָן עֲתִידִין לִיגָּאֵל
In Nisan we were redeemed and in Nisan in the future we will be redeemed.
As we gather round the Seder table with our family, friends and loved ones, take a moment to express gratitude for such an opportunity. There is no greater blessing than to be able to spend meaningful moments with those we cherish the most.
Let’s also take a moment to recognize that our songs of joy are muffled a bit this year and add a prayer that this Pesach usher in the shared redemption of all of us.
Rabbi Barry Gelman
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of