Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Like Clay In The Hands Of The Potter

ו הֲכַיּוֹצֵר הַזֶּה לֹא-אוּכַל לַעֲשׂוֹת לָכֶם, בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל--נְאֻם-יְהוָה; הִנֵּה כַחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר, כֵּן-אַתֶּם בְּיָדִי בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל. {ס} 6 '

O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay in the potter's hand, so are ye in My hand, O house of Israel. {S}

~Jeremiah 18: 6


Arguably the most famous piyut on Yom Kippur is "Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter:"

Like the clay in the hand of the potter-
he expands it at will and contracts it at will-
so are we in Your hand, O Preserver of kindness,
look at the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

Like the stone in the hand of the cutter-
he grasps it at will and smashes it at will-
so are we in Your hand, O Source of life and death,
look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

Like the ax-head in the hand of the blacksmith-
he forges it at will and removes it at will-
so are we in Your hand,
O Supporter of poor and destitute,
look at the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

Like the anchor in the hand of the sailor-
he holds it at will and casts it at will-
so are we in Your hand,
O good and forgiving God,
look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

Like the glass in the hand of the blower-
he shapes it at will and dissolves it at will-
so are we in Your hand,
O Forgiver of willful sins and errors,
look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

Like the curtain in the hand of the embroiderer-
he makes it even at will and makes it uneven at will-
so are we in Your hand,
O jealous and vengeful God,
look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

Like the silver in the hands of the silversmith-
he adulterates it at will and purifies it at will-
so are we in Your hand,
O Creator of cure for disease,
look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.


This piyut is generally seen as being terrifying, because our lives and destines are malleable and in God's hands, and it is He who may do as He desires with us.

Yet there is another point of view, an optimistic one, espoused in Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer, page 271:

"As for my parentage," he added, "it makes little difference. True kinship has naught to do with blood ties, however strong they be. I think we are all kin, brothers and sisters one to the other, all children of all parents. And the birthright I once sought, I seek it no longer. The folk of the Free Commons taught me well, that manhood is not given but earned. Even King Smoit in Cantrev Cadiffor told me this, but I did not heed him.

"Llonio said life was a net for luck; to Hevydd the Smith life was a forge; and to Dwyvach the Weaver-Woman a loom. They spoke truly, for it is all of these. But you," Taran said, his eyes meeting the potter's, "you have shown me life is one thing more. It is clay to be shaped, as raw clay on a potter's wheel."

To be a shaper of clay is to have power. Here, Taran has realized the ability and responsiblity one has to shape one's life, and to have the incredible power of being able to do so, and to make it as we so choose.

In our case, we as clay are also shaped, and who better to be shaped and molded by than God? On the one hand it is terrifying, but on the other hand, it gives me a sense of happiness to know that I, Chana, am lucky enough to be the clay in the hands of God, who has taken the time and invested the effort in forming me, creating me, in my own fashion and with my own function. How lucky am I that of all the hands that I could possibly be in, it is God Himself who molds me and forms me, who holds me in His hands and shapes me!

On that note, there is a beautiful midrash in Genesis Rabbah 32:3:
    It is written: “The Lord seeks out the righteous man, but loathes the wicked one who loves injustice” (Ps. 11:5). Rabbi Jonathan said: A potter does not check the quality of fragile vessels, which he has but to strike once and they break. Which does he examine? The sturdy vessels, that even if he strikes them several times they do not break. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, does not put trials before the wicked, rather before the righteous, as it is said: “The Lord seeks out [Heb. yivhan, also meaning “examines”] the righteous man.” It is also written (Gen. 22:1): “G-d put Abraham to the test.” Rabbi Jose ben Haninah said: When a flax worker knows that his flax is good, the more he pounds it, the better it becomes, and when he beats it, it becomes finer; but when he knows his flax is not good, he has but to pound it once and the fiber breaks. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, does not put the wicked to the test, but rather the righteous, as it is said: “The Lord seeks out the righteous man.” Rabbi Eleazar said: This may be compared to a landlord who has two cows, one robust and one weak; on which would he put the yoke, not on the robust one? Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, puts the righteous to the test, as it is written, “The Lord seeks out the righteous man.” [4]

We are clay in the hands of the Potter. And what does God make of us? Vessels, of course, just as He created Adam as a vessel of clay, which he then infused with a spirit and a soul. And what kind of vessels does God make of us? Why, sturdy vessels which will not crack. Yet we are all tested. We are tested with trials and tribulations and opportunities to sin- and this is because of who and what we are, these vessels created by God.

So when we recite this piyut, on the one hand, it is indeed terrifying that God has the ability to dash us to the ground and destroy us, that he can erase us from existence, that we are malleable clay in His hands. But it is also true that God takes this clay and creates us from it, forming us into special and beautiful vessels, which He then tests. It is through these very tests that we might perhaps fall, and the Accuser would have room to argue! Yet that is impossible, because God Himself can testify that He is our creator, the Potter, and that the vessels are sturdy, even if they seem cracked- or if they are cracked, that they can become whole once more. Yes, we are clay in the hands of the Potter, and He has absolute power over us. But we are also clay in the hands of the Potter- in the hands of God! I was formed and created and had life breathed into me by God, and it is God who can testify that He made me well, and the vessel may yet be whole.


Anonymous said...

Chana Please forgive me your post was phenomenal today maybe we got off the wrong foot i'm sorry i want to start
over i really do as friends let me know what you think seriously do now
Have a safe fast and Gmar Chasimah Tova wishing all for the best
bye for right now and be in touch

Ben Rosenfeld

Anonymous said...

I've always liked that quote from Taran: Wanderer, and I've also sometimes speculated about its relation to the Yom Kippur piyyut. Great post!

nmf #7 said...

Wow- excellent post! Thanks for the viewpoint!

Scraps said...

It's interesting - I think my own feeling about this piyyut was always closer to yours. Thanks for this dvar Torah. :)

Anonymous said...

The chazzan in my shul always sings this piyyut in a happy, upbeat tune (can send you a recording if you wish) - I always look at it as telling us that Hashem has the power to mold us, with our help.

See also LabRab's pshat in tanur shel achnai form his siyyum of taharos - I find I am quoting it more and more...
(Again, can send it to you if you wish).

? said...

Thanks for this...


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i love that piyyut

Moishe3rd said...

And, just because I was Googling the piyut to paste and copy which led me here - thank you. Yasher koach.
It is also my favorite. I would favor including it in more than just maariv.
For years (many years ago), I forgot that we didn't repeat it and was always
Be well.

Seeker Dan said...

Chana - this is the first I've seen of your blog, some 9 years after you wrote this post. I hope the years have been good to you. As with the commenter above me, I was searching for commentaries on this piyut. I know from my father, a"h, that this was his father's favorite Piyut. I love your discussion of it, and would to include ideas from it in a d'var torah I may give this year on Yom Kippur.