WE ALL HAVE OUR favorite Passover Seder melodies. If we are guests at a Seder where they sing a different melody to that passage of the Haggadah, then it just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes even within one family there can be competing “must sing” versions to the same passage. Often the solution is to sing both versions. Something incredible, however, has happened to one traditional song of the Haggadah: a competing contemporary melody has succeeded in making it into many homes without having to settle for equal billing with the traditional melody. The new melody has totally displaced the old. I am speaking of the passage: “Vehi She’amdah.”
In 2009 American-born Israeli singer and songwriter Yonatan Razel created a new melody to “Vehi She’amdah” (“And it was this that has stood for our parents and for us”), and he then teamed up with American Hasidic singer Yaakov Shwekey. It became a smash hit not only for Passover and not only for religious communities but all across Israel. What makes Razel’s rendition so wonderful?
Whereas the traditional melody to Vehi She’amdah sounds like a slave’s work song, Razel makes us realize that the words don’t jibe with that type of song. Razel’s melody, which begins with a feeling of star-struck wonder, gives beautiful voice to the riddle behind “it was this that has stood.” Just what is “this”? What precisely has stood in our favor despite all our enemies? Answer: I’m not telling. It’s a Mystery–and a good discussion starter for your Seder.
It is the second part of Razel’s song, so climactic and so powerful, that sends the old melody to the history bins. Rather than a recapitulation of the beginning melody (as in the traditional version), Razel’s ending feels like some kind of resolution to the problem of theodicy (how evil can exist if G-d is all-powerful and all-good). G-d is present in the face of all of our enemies. G-d saves, and as evidence, we are still here to sing about it. The melody is so magical that (as in some of the recorded versions) many people repeat the song as a niggun, without the words–something no one was ever tempted to do with the old melody. If you have not yet adopted this song for your Passover Seder, Rabbi Google will be more than happy to help you out.
At the end of Passover last year, my son Elie asked me: “Did you grow spiritually during the holiday?” And I was taken aback. Because in the middle of the many details of Passover it’s easy to lose sight of this question. After all, Passover is a most demanding holiday. There is much cleaning to do in the days leading up to the holiday, the Seder is a major production, and the week of Passover cooking on Passover implements with Passover food can be quite challenging. Amidst everything, it is good to remember Elie’s question. I am a religious Jew, and I believe that all the holiday’s laws and details are indeed designed for some kind of spiritual benefit, some kind of deepening or uplift. If I go through the entire Passover holiday without thinking about my relationship with the divine, then I have missed something. So this holiday I’m going to try to remember Elie’s comment beforehand and not after the fact, and I encourage you all to do the same. Happy Passover.