August 31, 2010
When I entered the sanctuary at Isabella Freedman at the very beginning of Yom Kippur, 2005 / 5766, a group of people were already seated in a rough circle on the carpet. Someone was playing a hand-drum. As I picked up the melody, I started to sing along. We were singing a little snippet of the Selichot liturgy (which is traditionally prayed starting on the Saturday night before the Days of Awe and continuing through Yom Kippur.) Here's the line we were chanting:
רחמנא דעני לעניי ענינא!
רחמנא דעני לתבירי לבא ענינא, ענינא!
O Merciful One who answers those in need, answer us!
O Merciful One who answers the broken-hearted, answer us!
The words are Aramaic. The tune we used was Hasidic in origin, though I don't know anything beyond that about its provenance.
Here's the tune we used: Rachamana D'aney on YouTube, courtesy of the folks at Ner Shalom.
That year on retreat, we returned to this chant periodically over the course of Yom Kippur; it became one of the musical and spiritual refrains of our day. We won't be singing "Rachamana d'aney" at selichot services at my shul this coming Saturday evening, but I find that it's often running through my head at this time of year, and alongside it, two Hasidic teachings which it calls to mind.
The Kotzker rebbe (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) is reported to have taught that "There is nothing so whole as the broken heart." It's a powerful paradox, to think that we can find wholeness not despite our brokenness but through it. Everyone who's lived in the world is a little bit broken. We hurt one another; we experience loss; we miss the mark; we grieve. But this doesn't have to distance us from God, especially not at this holy time of year. God, our tradition teaches, answers us when we call out from the place of our broken hearts.
The Baal Shem Tov tells a story about Rabbi Zev Kitzes and how his broken heart enabled him to call out the blasts of the shofar with perfect holy intention. (I wrote about that story a few years back: the master key is the broken heart.) Jewish tradition contains many teachings about the holiness we can find in what is broken. Our broken hearts offer God a way in. Or, in the words of the great Reb Leonard Cohen, "there is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in."
Leonard Cohen performing "Anthem."
Historically I've been more comfortable with the idea of coming to God through joy than with the idea of coming to God through sorrow. I don't want to dwell on what hurts; who does? But this year, maybe because I've recently been through the valley of the shadow of depression and emerged into the sunlight on the other side, I'm keenly aware that even in the sweetest life there is some heartbreak. This year my question is, can we draw on our experiences of heartbreak as we strive to become more compassionate and more kind, to others and to ourselves? Do we have the courage to sit with what hurts, and to trust that God will answer our brokenness with the compassion we need?
What in you is broken, this year, as we approach the Days of Awe? What would it feel like to cry out and to know that God hears you, not despite your aches but in them and through them?