One of the moving experiences that will be engraved in all of our Israeli Coronavirus Pesach memories is the balcony sing-a-long of “Ma Nishtana” on a night that was very different from every Leil HaSeder we have experienced in the past.
The balcony sing-a-long is not a new phenomenon during the Coronavirus pandemic, but an entire country singing the exact same song at the same time must set a unique precedent! This experience, which I was privileged to be part of, reminded me of another event that is also connected with Pesach – “Shirat HaYam” – the Song of the Sea. This spontaneous singing came simultaneously from all the Jewish people after they evidenced the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, which took place on the seventh day of Pesach.
The splitting of the Red Sea occurred at the most despairing moment of the Exodus. After everyone thought they were finally free, they found themselves surrounded – by the Egyptians on the one side and by the Red Sea on the other side. The people were in terrible confusion, and Moshe tried to calm them down with the following promise: “But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today;… The LORD will battle for you; you hold your peace!“
However, Moshe’s comforting and reassuring message to the people was not acceptable to G-d: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward”. Why did G-d criticize Moshe? What was wrong with his prayers and words of encouragement?
The Holy Sage Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel interprets the words of G-d to Moshe Rabbenu as follows: “Why do you come and pray before me? The prayers of my people precede your prayer! Tell the children of Israel to go forward!“
G-d rebukes Moshe – the leader – for turning to pray to G-d and at the same time instructing the Israelites to remain silent, instead of realizing that the Israelites are the ones who are supposed to pray now! With all due respect to the quality prayer of Moshe Rabbenu, it is not comparable to the prayer that emanates from the entire nation. Indeed, immediately after the splitting of the Red Sea, everyone burst into song together – “Az Yashir Moshe U’Bnei Israel” – “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the L-RD”
I have not been praying in a synagogue for over a month, an experience which I truly miss. The cross-communal singing of “Ma Nishtana” made me think. Sometimes, the religious sector tends to converge within itself and prefers to keep their shuls private and sterile. They often avoid welcoming guests who are not frequent “shul goers” and who may sometimes disturb the holy atmosphere of the prayer service by disrupting the decorum with inappropriate behavior or attire, or even with a mobile phone that might ring occasionally by accident. The quality of their prayers is immensely important to them, but if theirs is an exclusive prayer in which there is not room for every Jew, isn’t that prayer flawed? After all, this was the essence of G-d’s criticism of Moshe Rabbenu: “Why do you cry out to Me?“
The Coronavirus pandemic raises many thoughts and emotions about life and its meaning. The thought I’m taking with me from this year’s Pesach – with all the synagogues closed and so many Israelis singing “Ma Nishtana” together – that today, more than ever, there is a need to redeem Israeli society from the divisions that consume us from within. The endless acts of kindness and mutual responsibility across the sectors, that we are witnessing every day, remind us who we really are. Particularly in times like these, many people are seeking unity, identity, tradition, and heritage.
The “Song of the Sea” and the “Song of the Balconies” are both a reminder to all of us that Judaism is an asset that belongs to each and every Jew, and that shuls are not exclusive clubs for observant people only. I pray that we do not forget this message when the Corona crisis is over and the gates of the synagogues are reopened.
Chag Sameach and prayers for good health for Israel and the entire world.