11 September 2020
By Rabbi Mitchell Berkowitz
I still hold on to an important lesson I learned from one of my college professors: A compelling message can be shared in two pages or fewer. No writing style demonstrates this better than poetry. Often brief, with carefully chosen words and an intentional structure, Judaism’s liturgical poems, or piyyutim, imbue the High Holiday service with beauty and meaning. My personal favorite, Ki Anu Amekha (For We are Your People), is recited on Yom Kippur. This piyyut shares a powerful message: our relationship status with God is complicated.
This piyyut presents a series of metaphors that describe the relationship between us and God using this reoccurring pattern: We are Your “x,” and You are our “y.” For example, “We are Your people, and You are our God. We are Your children, and You are our Father.” The metaphors are varied and some even seem to contradict each other. Each metaphor is packed with meaning: twelve different metaphors represent twelve multi-faceted relationships,
allowing us to conceive of limitless possibilities for describing a relationship with the Divine. This piyyut teaches us that a real relationship with God is rich, nuanced, and complicated, in the best of ways! Let us explore a few of those metaphors.
“Anu vaneicha v’ata avinu. We are Your children, and You are our Father.” Echoing the themes of Avinu Malkenu, the parent-child relationship is an integral aspect of our relationship with God. A child reasonably expects their parents to provide for their physical, social and emotional wellbeing. So too we expect that God will care for us as a parent cares for their child, providing us with these basic needs. But we all know that the parent-child relationship is neither static nor unidirectional. Parents expect that their children will respect and honor them, and even take care of them when the time arrives to do so. Judaism enshrines this expectation as a mitzvah, a divine instruction, explicitly given to the Israelites when they stood before God at the base of Mount Sinai. And so too in our relationship with God: we expect to be cared for and protected, but we must also find ways to honor the Divine as a child honors their parent.
“Anu karmecha v’ata notreinu. We are Your vineyard, and You are our Keeper.” This relationship is between a farmer and her crop. Crops are unable to act in the same ways that other living beings can. A field untended and unprotected will inevitably be overgrown with weeds, ravaged by animals, or destroyed by humans. No crop can successfully grow without one to guard it and tend it. This metaphor reminds us of our fragility as human beings. We not only desire to feel a connection to the Divine, but we need to have that connection to truly flourish. And when the Keeper of the vineyard does their job well, the fruits of their labors bring blessing to those around them. We need the Keeper to provide for us, and the Keeper needs us to provide for others.
These are but two of the twelve metaphors offered by this poem. This rich and varied list of relationships gives each one of us permission to chart the course of our own relationship with God. How I connect with the Divine in this moment will differ from how I have connected in the past, and will most likely differ from any future connection. And this is because our relationship with God evolves and transforms from moment to moment and year to year. The liturgy may stay the same, but the times change (as we all know!), we change, and this piyyut reminds us that our relationship with God can change as well.
Wishing you a meaningful and transformative High Holiday season.