Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yom Kippur: A time of closeness to God - Piyyut of the Week, L'cha Eli T'shukati

Many, including myself when I was younger, have the misconception that Yom Kippur is a sad and somber day on the Jewish Calendar. In fact, our tradition teaches, in Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8, that there were no happy days for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. Unlike Tisha B'av, we do not fast and deny ourselves pleasure out of mourning, but we do so as a way to atone for our sins.
Among the most moving themes of the liturgy of the day is that of closeness to God. Because we are confident that we will be forgiven on this day, the common Ashkenazi melody for the Vidui (confessional) is so happy, and in some communities, dancing takes place during some of the Piyutim, especially Mar'eh Kohen (How beautiful was the High Priest) after the description of the Temple service in Musaf. At least for Ashkenazim, this is the only day of the year that the line Barukh Shem Kevod following the Shema is recited aloud as it used to be in the Temple, and not in our usual undertone.
One of my favorite websites,, features the text and melodies for Jewish liturgical poety from across the spectrum of time, place and tradition, spanning from Greece to France and America to Tunisia. The featured piyyut this week is L'cha Eli T'shukati ascribed to the one of the famous Spanish-Jewish poets, Avraham Ibn Ezra or Yehuda Halevi. Although I had never heard of it before, I was drawn both by the words, in which the individual confesses to God as a lover would for their mate. It contains themes of both love and desire, as well as a poeticized version of the confession, going through our alphabetical laundry list of sins.
Again although I had never heard of this stirring piyyut before, it is one of the most well-known in the Sefardic tradition, recited throughout the world in their tradition as Jews gather in the synagogue to prepare for the recitation of Kol Nidrei. On that note, it is especially significant that in their custom, the dry, legal declaration of Kol Nidrei is preceded by an moving and emotional expression of our feelings of closeness to God which we will experience over Yom Kippur. The following translation is only of a selection from the very long piyyut; if you understand Hebrew, I encourage you to look at the full text, including the detailed confessional here. Below the text and translation, enjoy the music video of the piyyut by popular Israeli artist Meir Banai, whose rendition so moved me. If you are not moved by your high holy day services, imagine this melody as you prepare for this period of closeness, the holiest twenty five hours of the year in which we celebrate our passionate love for God, 'for we are Your children, and You, our parent.'

G'mar Hatima Tova! May you be inscribed for a happy and healthy year.

For You, God is my passion; in You is my love and affection.

Yours are my heart and organs, to You are my soul and spirit.

Yours are my hands and legs, and from You are my very thoughts.

For Yours are my blood and limbs, and my flesh and my essence.

Yours are my eyes and my ideas and my shape and creation.

To You I owe my spirit, my strength, and my hope and trust is in You.

To You I will yearn and I cannot compare, until my darkness will shine brightly.

To You I will shout, and to You I will cling until my return to my land.

To You is the kingship and pride, the direction of my praise.

From You is help at the time of need, be my help in my distress.

בְּךָ חֶשְׁקִי וְאַהֲבָתִי

לְךָ רוּחִי וְנִשְׁמָתִי

וּמִמָּךְ הִיא תְּכוּנָתִי

וְעוֹרִי עִם גְּוִיָּתִי

וְצוּרָתִי וְתַבְנִיתִי

וּמִבְטַחִי וְתִקְוָתִי

עֲדֵי תָּאִיר אֲפֵלָתִי

עֲדֵי שׁוּבִי לְאַדְמָתִי

לְךָ תֵאוֹת תְּהִלָּתִי

הֱיֵה עֶזְרִי בְּצָרָתִי

לְךָ אֵלִי תְּשׁוּקָתִי

לְךָ לִבִּי וְכִלְיוֹתַי

לְךָ יָדַי לְךָ רַגְלַי

לְךָ עַצְמִי לְךָ דָמִי
לְךָ עֵינַי וְרַעְיוֹנַי

לְךָ רוּחִי לְךָ כֹחִי
לְךָ אֶהֱמֶה וְלֹא אֶדְמֶה

לְךָ אֶזְעַק בְּךָ אֶדְבַּק
לְךָ מַלְכוּת לְךָ גֵאוּת

לְךָ עֶזְרָה בְּעֵת צָרָה

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