Talmud this Shabbat: Singing While the World Burns-the Disturbing Message of the Singing Serafs
What do we make of that moment in the prayers when the angels, safe in
heaven, are singing sweet and happy praises to God? We encounter this motif both in the prayers before the morning shema, and in the kedusha in the Amidah.
We revere and hallow You on earth as Your name is hallowed in heaven,
where it is sung by celestial choirs, as in Your prophet’s vision.
The angels called one to another:
Holy, holy, holy Adonai Tz’vaot;
the grandeur of the world is God’s glory.
(The Kedushah for Musaf on Shabbat)
There are a couple of challenges with this prayerful moment. First, it’s not us. The angels are in heaven, singing sweetly together. They make music. We are on earth, divided, arguing, talking past one another. We make cacophony.
But there is a deeper problem. If you read the sources from which this moment comes, as we will on Shabbat, the world is in the middle of a meltdown. There is a political crisis. A health crisis. A natural disaster (earthquake) crisis. Confidence in leadership is gone. The dead are piling up. The destruction is massive. I am not making this stuff up. It is explicitly in the sources we will encounter.
It is in this context of death, destruction and dislocation (Get used to it, God tells Isaiah. 90% of you will die. Only 10% will remain. The tree dies. Only the stump remains.), that the angels sing their sweet, untroubled song.
If the world is burning, why are they singing?
If the world is burning, why is God listening to it?
If the world was burning, why do we make this troubling motif—clueless angels singing to a distant God while people suffer and die—why do we pray this today, every day?