First Day of Pesach
The students in my singing and songwriting class—“consumers” at a hospital that offers inpatient services for people with serious mental illness—came into the chapel and began complaining before I could even say hello. One told me that her laryngitis won’t go away and the doctor won’t listen to her. Another said her back was really bothering her. A third said he really didn’t want to be in this class because he didn’t feel he was getting anything out of it, and he meant no disrespect, but he was talking to people about switching classes. With each complaint, I found myself feeling more and more excited: that morning I had decided—inspired in part by a radio story about the Philadelphia Complaint Choir—that today we would be harvesting our complaints and bringing them as the grist to our song-finding mill. Every complaint was “music to my ears.”
First we sang the sea chanty “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her,” itself a song of complaint about the difficult conditions under which the sailors have been toiling. Then we talked a bit about the complaints in the chanty’s lyrics, like “rotten meat and weavelly bread.” I asked my students to come up with at least one complaint that they would like to use to write our song, using the melody of the chanty but our own words. One student helpfully said that she didn’t know who “Johnny” was or why we were singing about him. I asked her what she thought we should sing instead and she said, “Help me, won’t you help me.” So that became the chorus of our “Song of Complaints.”
The first gentleman, who didn’t want to be in the class and was sitting off to the side, said he didn’t want to participate. The second person said her back was giving her a lot of trouble. The woman who felt her doctor wouldn’t listen had a lot to say. After a bit, I interrupted her and said, “I’m going to phrase that as a one line complaint that we can put in our song. And then you tell me if I’ve got it right or not. How does this sound? ‘I want help and no one listens!’” She agreed that that worked for her and now we had the first verse of our song:
“My back is giving me a lot of trouble.
Help me, won’t you help me.
I want help and no one listens.
Help me, won’t you help me.”
Now the complaints began to flow. Some were heartwrenching: “I want to see my son,” or “I don’t deserve these shots.” Other students had trouble articulating a complaint. Another student usually spent the whole class standing off to the side and rarely volunteered anything, but when I asked her if she had any complaints, she said, in a whisper, “Candy.” I said, “You have a complaint about candy? Too much or too little?” This drew some laughter, and I worried that she would feel embarrassed. But she raised her voice a bit and said, “Too little. More tasty.” I said, “What if we sing, ‘I want more tasty candy.’ Would that fit with your complaint?” And she agreed that it would.
We nearly had a whole song now and were ready to put it all together when the gentleman who didn’t want to be there said, “I do have some real complaints.” “Like what?” I asked. He began to talk about how he wanted to leave the hospital and live in a group home because he can take care of himself. I asked if he wanted to make his complaint into a line for the song. He said he did: “I want to be discharged.” Others in the class nodded in understanding and agreement, and we added the complaint to our song.
After a few rounds of singing our “Song of Complaints,” I asked people to reflect on what it was like to sing their complaints and to hear others singing as well. Did it feel different from just thinking them or saying them? One man said he felt guilty about complaining; he felt like by expressing complaint he wasn’t doing right by God. Another woman said it lifted it all up when it was in song. A third participant said it felt like praying: “And when I sing it,” she continued, “it’s like it’s already been answered.”
An answer to our prayers from a place of great stuckness? I’m not sure I could come up with a better summary of the story we will soon retell at our Passover seders. The events of the Exodus, the freeing of the slaves from over 400 years of bondage starts with their crying out and God, finally, hearing them. As we read in the Book of Exodus (2:23): “The Israelites were groaning from the toil.” It is their complaints, their singing out just what is wrong with their situation, that sets everything in motion.
We are meant to experience the Exodus from slavery in Egypt (in Hebrew mitzrayim meaning “the narrow places”) not only as an ancient story, but as something we ourselves experience personally. So it only make sense to start our retelling by getting a sense of what’s actually bothering us right now. For some of us, this can be quite difficult. We might think, “Who am I to complain?” or “How can my suffering possibly be compared to enslavement?” But this isn’t actually about comparing ourselves or our troubles to anyone else’s. This is simply about admitting what is true for us.
I’ve now taught the “Song of Complaints” in many different settings: synagogues, yoga studios, classrooms, and, just last week, at our Jerusalem Singing Circle. Every time, I am amazed by what can happen when we sing our complaints together. Things that seemed too difficult to bear are lightened, while complaints that seemed too trivial are acknowledged and elevated. Complaints about traffic and politicians are popular, but often people also bring surprisingly tender concerns that others in the circle may not have known about. Singing together, we feel heard; we feel less alone. Like those who went before us, when we give voice to our complaints together, we begin to participate in our own liberation.
And so I invite you to bring the Song of Complaints to your very own seder table. Traditionally, the seder starts with disgrace—naming our lowest points—and ends with songs of praise. Starting with complaints, genuine and in-the-moment, allows us to feel the immediacy of the move from stuckness to greater freedom. Whatever melody you use, you and your seder guests can simply voice what is actually bothering you right now. No complaint is too small. For example, what if we gave collective voice to the common concern that the seder was going to be too long? What are the physical and emotional discomforts of sitting down together at the seder table: from backaches to boredom? Is there someone whose absence is painful to you? Are other difficulties in life making it hard for you to focus on this ritual? And if you do give this a try, I would love to hear how starting with acknowledging your concerns impacted your ability to personally experience the move from stuckness to freedom.
(Minna Bromberg is a singer, songwriter, rabbi, and voice teacher who lives in Jerusalem. Ordained in 2010 at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, she currently runs the school’s Year-in-Israel Program for rabbinical students. Learn the melody for “Leave Her, Johnny Leave Her” with the chorus we wrote for the “Song of Complaints,” check out: https://tinyurl.com/sederofcomplaints)
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.