Friday, August 21, 2009

בן אדם מה לך נרדם Wake and repent!

Having just returned from a busy summer serving as the Mashgiah at Camp Ramah in Nyack, I hope to return to more regular postings of my thoughts on all aspects of Judaism and beyond.

We have just celebrated Rosh Hodesh Elul, when we begin the process of self reflection in anticipation of the High Holidays, and at which point our Sefardi brethren begin reciting Selichot, prayers of repentance before dawn each morning (Ashkenazim do so beginning on the Motzei Shabbat with at least four days before Rosh Hashanah, this year on September 12/13).
On that note, I wanted to translate and present the piyyut Ben Adam from the Sefardic tradition, to which I only was first exposed when browsing the internet a few months back. Its words and music are haunting and stirring, as the worshipper is exhorted to arouse from their slumber and stand, exposed before God in a plea for forgiveness.

בֶּן אָדָם, מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם
בֶּן אָדָם, מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם, קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנִים.
שְׁפךְ שִׂיחָה, דְּרשׁ סְלִיחָה, מֵאֲדון הָאֲדונִים.
רְחַץ וּטְהַר, וְאַל תְּאַחַר, בְּטֶרֶם יָמִים פּונִים.
וּמְהֵרָה, רוּץ לְעֶזְרָה, לִפְנֵי שׁוכֵן מְעונִים.
וּמִפֶּשַׁע, וְגַם רֶשַׁע, בְּרַח וּפְחַד מֵאֲסונִים.
אָנָּא שְׁעֵה, שִׁמְךָ יודְעֵי, יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶאֱמָנִים.
לְךָ אֲדנָי הַצְּדָקָה. וְלָנוּ בּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים:
עֲמד כְּגֶבֶר, וְהִתְגַּבֵּר, לְהִתְוַדּות עַל חֲטָאִים.
יָהּ אֵל דְּרשׁ, בְּכבֶד ראשׁ, לְכַפֵּר עַל פְּשָׁעִים.
כִּי לְעולָם, לא נֶעְלָם, מִמֶּנּוּ נִפְלָאִים.
וְכָל מַאֲמָר, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמַר, לְפָנָיו הֵם נִקְרָאִים.
הַמְּרַחֵם, הוּא יְרַחֵם, עָלֵינוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים

Son of man, why do you slumber, come and present words of petition.
Pour out conversation, seek forgiveness, from the Master of Masters.
Wash and purify, do not tarry, for the days will soon pass
And soon, seek assistance from the One who dwells on high.
And from sin and evil - run away and fear from those who may ensnare.
Please listen to those who know Your name, Israel, your faithful.

>>For Yours, God, is justice, and for ours is shame.

Stand with pride (literally: as a man, a mensch), to confess for sins.
Seek God, with a bowed head, to atone for transgressions
Since forever, wonders will not cease from before our eyes-
And any word which may be uttered, before Him will be read
The Merciful one, He will have mercy, as a father has mercy on children.
In both Ashkenazi and Sefardi rites, the Selichot liturgy focuses on God's thirteen attributes of mercy, and the short confessional ("Ashamnu, Bagadnu"). Each section is preceded by collections of biblical verses, and the entire service opens with Ashrei and the Hatzi Kaddish.
This poem is placed after the kaddish, and before the collection of verses, whose opening line is also the refrain above. Ben Adam contains many elements of classical piyyut, including a rhyming structure and word plays which use the power of language to enhance our approach of God.

Part of the beauty of בן אדם is the mental landscape it creates. We have arisen, as individuals and as part of a community, at an (excuse the pun, ungodly) early hour to beg for forgiveness. The poet reminds us that we are in a special window of opportunity created by the Yamim HaNoraim (high holiday season), but one that, like speeding train, may escape us if we do not take advantage of us. We are reminded, that yes, we are full of shame and sin, for we did not live up to expectations we set for ourselves, and we failed others and God, as seen by the refrain ("For Your, God...").
However, we are thankful for the gift of Teshuva, of repentance and return to God and what is good. Those gathered are told to be a mensch, and begin the task of making amends to God and their fellows. Then, the merciful one will surely have mercy on us, for He is our father and we are His children.

For Ashkenazim, this month of Elul is marked by the daily blowing of the shofar and the twice daily recitation of Psalm 27, acknowledging God as our light and salvation, even when repentance may seem so difficult. i hope that the poetic expression of these ideas of Elul and repentance will help make your high holiday season more meaningful.
Please enjoy the following beautiful and haunting renditions of this meaningful piece of the sefardi liturgical tradition.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share more piyyutim that are less well-known that I have come across in my travels.

1 comment:

Jonah Rank said...

Yishar kochakha!

I didn't realize that shofar-blowing was not the Sefardic thing to do...