Hallel is the liturgic way of sending a great thank you note. It's a musical mazal tov. It's a great concert, except everyone is donning tefillin and talllitot. Hallel is a way of saying we are grateful for all sorts of things; for life, for being redeemed from Egypt, for miracles. It is an important part of the liturgy and is a huge part of the Passover Haggadah.
Hallel has been so moving during Chanukah in The Memory Room. One of the regular participants, J, who is saying kaddish for her father, leads it with a voice like an angel and great spirit. There are many Zoom squares where I see the participants swaying and singing along silently. One morning this week, after J had finished a particularly stirring Hallel, one of the other regular participants shared why Hallel is more than just liturgy to her. Hallel is her father's story and it is a tragic blend of joyful exultation mixed with the tragedy of the Holocaust. R shared this story as it was a story of her father's town involving the people in his town. I wanted to share that story here with you.
R related to us that in her father's town in the Ukraine, many people were in hiding and others went out to do forced labor each day, barely abled to exist on tiny rations. People kept their heads down and did what they could to survive. On the morning of July 25, 1942, the ghetto was surrounded by the Gestapo and hundreds of Ukranians. Jews were told that they were being transferred, which was an ominous sign. As the people hurriedly prepared themselves to depart, they were told that would be no Aktion that day. People turned around.
"The happiness reached the heart of heaven. People returned with songs and praises. Engaged couples kissed; brothers and sisters hugged; some danced; some fainted. We wished each other “mazel tov” (congratulations). Hundreds ran to say Hallel. "
According to accounts, this "change of plans"was not a change of plans at all. As the Jews barely had time to say Hallel before the shooting began. Five thousand people were slaughtered that day.* Before they were slaughtered, however, they had the words of the Hallel on their lips and in their souls. They probably sang with the ferocity that only those in danger can muster. I hope that their holy praises of HaKadosh Baruch Hu were heard. They were martyrs; they died for Kiddush HaShem.
It is hard to fathom the death of even one person; all the more so the death of the majority of people in a community, let alone six million. It is also difficult to untangle the words of the Hallel from the fate of the Jews of Olyk. I can only hope that for a few brief moments, the words of the Hallel gave Jews comfort and that indescribable feeling of joy, which I suspect was absent from their lives during the final months of their lives. Perhaps it gave them comfort during their last moments.
Stories like these give us pause to understand the importance of prayer and how prayer can make a connection to joy, jubilation and comfort. At that moment of "the great Hallel" prayer had great meaning. Thank you, R, for sharing this story with us. May the souls who perished in Olyk find peace in Gan Eden with the words of Hallel surrounding them with eternal joy.
Words of the Hallel from Sefaria
Halleluyah! Praise, servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. May the Name of the Lord be blessed from now and forever. From the rising of the sun in the East to its setting, the name of the Lord is praised. Above all nations is the Lord, His honor is above the heavens. Who is like the Lord, our God, Who sits on high; Who looks down upon the heavens and the earth? He brings up the poor out of the dirt; from the refuse piles, He raises the destitute. To seat him with the nobles, with the nobles of his people. He seats a barren woman in a home, a happy mother of children. Halleluyah! (Psalms 113)
The Lord who remembers us, will bless; He will bless the House of Israel; He will bless the House of Aharon. He will bless those that fear the Lord, the small ones with the great ones. May the Lord bring increase to you, to you and to your children. Blessed are you to the Lord, the maker of the heavens and the earth. The heavens, are the Lord's heavens, but the earth He has given to the children of man. It is not the dead that will praise the Lord, and not those that go down to silence. But we will bless the Lord from now and forever. Halleluyah! (Psalms 115)
I have loved the Lord - since He hears my voice, my supplications. Since He inclined His ear to me - and in my days, I will call out. The pangs of death have encircled me and the straits of the Pit have found me and I found grief. And in the name of the Lord I called, "Please Lord, Spare my soul." Gracious is the Lord and righteous, and our God acts mercifully. The Lord watches over the silly; I was poor and He has saved me. Return, my soul to your tranquility, since the Lord has favored you. Since You have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I will walk before the Lord in the lands of the living. I have trusted, when I speak - I am very afflicted. I said in my haste, all men are hypocritical. (Psalms 116:1-11)
*Taken from the The Last Date, testimony by Shlomo Sahm (also sometimes spelled Zam)
Shlomo and Lenke Zam