Tal, The Perfect Pesach Piyyut -- Posted by hazzanmenes
Water is the substrate for Judaism. Some religions might focus on blood; we focus on water. It is the source of life. It is not a surprise that freedom came by way of the Sea of Reeds. God's power was revealed through water and it was the boundary we had to cross. It wasn't a fence, a mountain, a valley, a cliff: it was a sea. On Pesach, as on Sukkot, we rejoice in the symbol of water as our means to redemption.
On the first day of Pesach, in the Musaf service, we chant a unique piece of the liturgy. The language is unlike the rest of the service, the melody is unlike the melodies used in the Shalosh Regalim. Even the shalliach tsibbur is dressed in strange clothes. The text is called Tal, dew, and is chanted as part of the Musaf Amidah to ask for the dew that sustains crops in Israel in the coming season.
Tal is a piyyut, a liturgical poem, the last remnant of a larger setting of a poetic version of the Amidah, called a kerovah, which included many such piyyutim. Written around the seventh century in Palestine and attributed to the great poet Eleazar Kallir, it expands the ideas of the the second berakhah of the Amidah, the Gevurot. The second berakha focuses on God's awesome power over nature and God's ability to revive the dead. As such, it is messianic in nature. And so is Tal. As Tal is messianic, so is Pesach.
Tal has three main themes, two of which are obvious. The first is the necessity for water and the recognition of God's role in the changing of the season. The piyyut was written in Palestine and, appropriately, addresses the seasonal change from rain to dew. Pesach is a holiday celebrating the springtime, the change of season. Naturally, it is linked to the piyyut through this message. In the Musaf service on the first day of Pesach we change from acknowledging God's power over rain to God's control over the dew.
Tal takes the message of the life-giving power of water, under God's control, to God's provision of crops and food. The piyyut quickly moves from dew to the produce of the land and constantly comes back to this theme: "designate us for a blessing in Your joy with abundant grain and wine." The use of food imagery continues with phrases like "fruit of the earth", "satiate us with blessing", "fill our silos with plenty", "by it bless food". Pesach is Chag HaMatzot, the Festival of Matzah, and what we eat on this holiday is one of the ways in which we remember and consecrate the holiday. We eat the bread of our affliction, which we hurriedly baked and which sustained us as we were redeemed. The seder itself is a feast celebrating the symbols of our freedom in food, and in liturgy. Food in the desert, manna, is one of the images recounted on Pesach, and the Pesach offering itself, the central symbol of the holiday, is eaten. Thus, food is a fundamental theme in both Pesach and the piyyut.
The third theme which Tal shares with Pesach is the messianic vision, the ultimate redemption, the time when Jerusalem is rebuilt and the dead are re-enlivened. The messianic vision embedded in Tal is not as obvious as the water and food themes and can only be deciphered by carefully unpacking the literary allusions which the paeton, the poet, uses. For example, the use of the statement "the fruit of the earth as proud and glorious" is a literary allusion to Isaiah 4:2, which speaks of "the day when the radiance of the Lord will lend beauty and fruit, and the splendor of the land will give dignity and majesty to the survivors of Israel." Clearly, this, as well as other numerous allusions to Isaiah, links the piyyut not just to rejuvenation in the springtime sense, but rejuvenation in the messianic sense. This is made even clearer with the language regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which alludes to Isaiah 44:26: "To Jerusalem it shall be inhabited and the towns of Judah small be rebuilt. And I will restore ruined places." As well, the piyyut has "if you now would renew our days" harkening us to Lamentations 5:21: "Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself and let us come back. Renew our days as of old."
The messianic theme of Pesach is obvious. The redemption from Egypt and slavery parallels the redemption in the age of the messiah. No stronger vision of the messianic age is needed than the statement, "Next year in Jerusalem." The haftarah read on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach, from Ezekial 37:1-14 highlights the strong messianic vision of the holiday: "Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again."
Come to services on the morning of the first day of Pesach. You will hear the poem which summarizes in three minutes what took hours the night before: that at this time, we commemorate God's power through water, how we are sustained through food, and how we have been, and shall be again, redeemed from slavery.