On the poetry of Yom Kippur
Opening the Machzor on the High Holidays is like returning to the company of an old friend. On each page we might recall past interactions and thoughts and then find ourselves challenged by new insights. On Erev Yom Kippur we recite the piyyut (ancient liturgical poem) Ki Hinei KaChomer b’Yad HaYotzer, ‘Like Clay in the Hand of the Potter.’ The poem is intended to prepare us for the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which are repeated several times in the Selichot section of the service. As the final piyyut of the section, it emphasises its central theme, that God’s ways are ways of mercy, and though humanity is liable to sin God stands by the covenant and forgives us.
Each stanza compares God to an artisan: a stonecutter, a blacksmith and a glassblower. Each artisan creates objects from raw materials and can just as easily destroy those objects at will. The piyyut takes its central image from a parable told in the Book of Jeremiah: ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in My Hand, O House of Israel.’ (18:6) The parable answers a rhetorical question: Does the Creator have the freedom to shape the Universe? The text of the Tanach asserts that God has complete control to create or destroy the world; the Holy One is portrayed as a domineering but remote authority figure.
It begins: ‘Like clay in the potter’s hands, expanded or contracted at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of lovingkindness. Look to the covenant and disregard our inclination.’
In adopting the imagery of the original biblical text, the piyyut examines the premise and then adds nuance to the characterisation of God. The Divine has complete control over Creation, but that power is tempered by God’s other qualities. In the first stanza, God is the guardian of lovingkindness; later, God is supporter of the poor and destitute, and further on, God is characterized as beneficent and forgiving. By including these qualities, the author of the piyyut sets the stage to seek God’s forgiveness. With the refrain of the piyyut, ‘Look to the covenant and disregard our inclination’, the poet takes us back to the covenant struck with God after the Flood in the Book of Genesis. There, God promises never again to punish humanity, even though we have an inclination (yetzer) to evil. The Sages make a note of the similarities between the words yetzer (inclination) and yotzer (creator). It is not just simple word play, but a theological insight; if human beings have the inclination and freedom to do evil then it is because God, the yotzer (creator), created us with it. Though humanity is at God’s mercy, the Creator is still in covenant with humankind. The promise of the covenant forged after the Flood is that God recognises our weaknesses and has the capacity to forgive us; we remain in eternal covenant with God.