Min ha-Meitzar #3

From the Narrow Place


כִּי הָיְתָה טָעוּת.  וְאוּלַ'
כָּל חַיַי אֲנִי חַי בְטָעוּת.  וֵאלֹהֵי יַלְדוּתִי גַּם הוּא
טָעוּת, וְהוּא נִקְרָא עֲדַיִן אֱלֹהִים.
It was a mistake.  
Perhaps I have lived my whole life in a mistake.  
The God of my childhood also is a mistake, 
yet is still called God.1

I have experienced these poetic lines by Yehudah Amicahi, in his poem, כְּשֶׁהָיִיתִי צָעִיר הֶאֱמַנְתּי בְּכָל לִבִּי - When I Was Young I Believed With All My Heart, bubbling up within me often these past weeks while watching the news, navigating unfolding events with friends, and explaining the inexplicable to my child.  However, it is in the act of prayer that I find these words surfacing most often.

Through his poetry, Yehudah Amichai captures the cognitive dissonance and confusion of moving through the experience of war in the context of a tradition that nevertheless uplifts the act of meaning-making.  A piece that reckons with a God whose actions could push us to question our most fundamental of beliefs, the full poem reads:

כְּשֶׁהָיִיתִי צָעִיר הֶאֱמַנְתּי בְּכָל לִבִּי שֶׁאֶת אֲגַם 
הַחוּלָה חַיָּבִים לְיַבֵּשׁ, ְוכָל הַצִּפּוֹרִים הַצִּבְעוֹנִיּוֹת 
בָּרְחוּ מִשָּׁם וְעַכְשָׁו, אַחַר כִּמְעַט חֲצִי מֵאָה, 
שׁוּב מְמַלְּאִים אוֹתוֹ מַיִם, כִּי הָיְתָה טָעוּת.  וְאוּלַי
כָּל חַיַי אֲנִי חַי בְטָעוּת.  וֵאלֹהֵי יַלְדוּתִי גַּם הוּא
טָעוּת, וְהוּא נִקְרָא עֲדַיִן אֱלֹהִים.
אֲבָל הַטָּעוּת הַשְּׁלֵמָה עוֹשָּׂה חַיִּים שְׁלֵמִים
כְּמוֹ אֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה.  וְאֶת הַמִּלִּים ״טָעוּת לְעוֹלָם חוֹזֵר״
הָפַכְתִּי לְזֶמֶר מַרְגִּיעַ, וּמִן הַמִּלִּים 
״כָּל הָאָדָם כּוֹזֵב״ עָשִׂיתִי קֶצֶב מָחוֹל בַּיוֹם
וְשִׁיר עֶרֶשׂ בַּלָּיְלָה.  אָמֵן.
When I was young I believed with all my heart that the Hula
swamp had to be drained, but all of the colorful birds
fled and now, after almost half a century,
they are again filling it with water, because it was a mistake.  
Perhaps I have lived my whole life in a mistake.  
The God of my childhood also is a mistake, yet is still called God.
But a complete mistake makes for a complete life
the same as complete belief.
The words “a mistake lives forever” I have made into a soothing melody, 
and from Psalms “everyone disappoints” I have made a dance step by day
and a lullaby by night.  
Amen/I believe.

I am struck by Amichai’s choice of verse in this poem:

תהלים קטז:יא
אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בְחׇפְזִי כׇּֽל־הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב׃
Psalm 116:11
I said rashly, “Everyone disappoints.”

Darkly desolate when read in isolation, this line is, in fact, embedded within one of the Psalms included in Hallel, verses intended to be said in prescribed moments of enhanced gratitude.  This verse directly follows lines recognizing the suffering humanity may experience that causes us to cry out in anguish and disillusionment to God.  Amichai himself recontextualizes this line, making the disillusionment itself an opportunity for intentional movement and seeking of connection (the “dance step”) and gentle comfort (a “lullaby”).

We will pray Hallel this coming week as we welcome the new month of Kislev, a month which itself contains ample opportunity for Hallel during Hanukkah.  As I imagine rising and opening my mouth to sing harmoniously verses of praise with my community, I feel that same sentiment bubbling up inside of me, that perhaps what I for so long believed with the whole of my heart was a mistake.  How do I turn my own confusion—our community’s confusion, even our tradition’s confusion—into, in Amichai’s words, a “soothing melody”?

It is the very essence of Amichai’s playful integration of Psalm 116:11 that reminds me that music is itself a container to turn to in this moment.  The emotionally diverse melodies of Hallel allow us to integrate these tefillot that themselves encompass the yearning2 and joy, disillusionment3 and belief, uplift4 and sorrow, comfort5 and disorientation that is at the core of our prayers.  

As we prepare to mark Rosh Hodesh Kislev and daven Hallel this coming week, I turn in gratitude to poetry and song as a way to hold us in the cognitive dissonance of grief, disillusionment, and—perhaps inexplicably in these dark days—hope.  

Find these melodies and more in our Rising Song Hallel playlist.

1. Translated by R. Steven Sager (z”l) and published on his organization’s website.
2. “Min Hameitzar,” by R. Deborah Sacks Mintz, The Narrow and the Expanse (2020).
3. “Ahavti,” by Joey Weisenberg, L’eila (2022).
4. “Odecha,” by Cantor George Mordecai, Safra (2018).
5. “Keyli Atah,” by RAZA, Kapelya (2023).