This is the time of year that religious Jews wake up early to say Selichot, prayers to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Many of these prayers are in the form of intricate poetry that draws heavily on astounding knowledge of the entire Hebrew Bible, called piyutim. Every day different piyutim are recited. Unfortunately, they are often said so quickly that the multiple layers of meanings behind them get left behind.
On Wednesday, I was struck by the end of a piyut where the author – who is unknown but certainly lived before the 13th century – almost demanded that God take the Jews out of the Diaspora, using an audacious argument.
The piyut, #13 in the Ashkenaz nusach, is called Khoker HaKol. ends by noting that according to Jewish law, a slave must be freed by the end of a six year period. If the slave decides that he loves his master, he can stay on until the end of a 49-year period (Yovel, or Jubilee.)
The poet says that the Jewish people have gone through many of these six year periods, and they do not love their foreign masters, so we should have been freed long ago, to live back in our land.
However, the author adds, non-Jewish slaveowners do not submit to Jewish law and are not compelled to free Jewish slaves. Yet, he goes on, there is an obligation for Jews, especially family to pay to redeem these slaves and set them free, even if they must pay an exorbitant fee.
Therefore, it is up to God Himself to redeem the prisoners, since the Jews have no other kinsmen to redeem them! (God is variously described as the father or the bridegroom of the Jewish people in the Hebrew scripture and other sources.)
The poet is essentially telling God that according to His own laws, He has no choice but to free His children and return them to their home in Israel!
This is a small example of a fairly obscure Jewish prayer, yet it explains a lot about the Jewish people.
It shows that the yearning to end the state of diaspora has been keen and painful for a very long time.
And it shows that the Jewish people have, even in the worst of times, felt intimate enough with God to approach Him so audaciously.
Yet most stories of such audacious actions that I am aware of have had a common thread – the audacity was tied to saving the Jewish people.
The famous Israeli rudeness is because everyone feels like family and you can say things to family you can’t say to strangers. The relationship with God Himself is similar throughout Jewish history, where He can be approached with the intimacy of a family member – especially when the purpose is to help save the entire family.
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