Welcome To Temple Beth El!


Chodesh Tov! This is the beginning of the month Elul, the reflective, preparatory period leading up to the High Holidays when we begin the inner work of evaluating our deeds from the past year and considering how to improve ourselves for the coming year. That is traditionally done through the recitation of selichot, penitential poems and prayers focused on forgiveness, penitence, and petition. In Ashkenazi communities these readings start on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah but in Sephardic traditions they are read nightly the whole month of Elul.


In light of that tradition, I will be writing a weekly piece in which we will use the liturgy of the High Holiday season to spur reflection and prepare ourselves for the deeper, more meaningful prayer and contemplation that happen on the High Holidays themselves. We will do that by looking at the piyyutim read during Selichot and the High Holidays. The word “piyyut” is often translated as a liturgical poem and, unlike a regular prayer,is intended to be put to a melody and usually has some call and response aspect between the prayer leader and the congregation. Yet the line between piyyut and prayer isn’t always so clear. The Aleinu prayer is a classic example; while it is now consider a standard prayer that is part of every service, it was originally a poetic addition to the special Kingship section of the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf service composed in Talmudic times. Adon Olam is another piyyut that eventually became a fixture of the morning service.


A more encompassing definition for piyyutim, therefore, might be poetic additions to prayer. Piyyutim are the embellishments to the older fixed prayers like the Shema and Amidah. Some scholars think they may have even originated as substitutes to formal prayer during times of persecution but over time they becamea way to add interest tothe fixed prayer service, building on the themes of the existing prayers. Numerous piyyutim are added within and between the formal prayers on the High Holy Days, echoing the big themes of the days.


Over the next few weeks, we will look at piyyutim added to the Rosh Hashana service but I want to begin with a piyyut traditionally recited in Sephardic communities as part of the selichot during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana. It’s a beautiful poem that I think captures the reflective aspect of this time really well. While less common in America, it is fairly well known in Israel and is included in the Israeli Conservative (Masorti) Movement’s mahzor. There are versions by many different Israeli musicians, even one by a rapper who uses the piyyut as the refrain. Here’s a version performed by the Piyyut Ensemble, an Israeli group that performs entire concerts of piyyutim. And this version by the Israeli pop singer Ishay Ribo is one of my favorites.


O man, why are you sleeping? Arise, call out with supplications!              

Pour out speech, seek forgiveness from the Master of masters.

Run and be purified, and do not delay before the days pass on.

And quickly run for help, before the One who dwells above.

And from rebellion and also evil, escape and fear disasters.

Please answer those who know Your name, the faithful Israel.


To you, Lord, is justice, and to us is shamefacedness.


Stand like a hero and be strong to confess sins.

The Lord God seek with a serious head, to atone for sins.

For never are unrevealed things hidden from Him.

And every statement that is said is read in front of Him.

The merciful One, will have mercy like a father upon his children.


To you, Lord, is justice and to us is shamefacedness.


בֶּן אָדָם מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנים

שְׁפֹךְ שִׂיחָה דְּרֹשׁ סְלִיחָה; מֵאֲדוֹן הָאֲדוֹנִים

רְחַץ וּטְהַר וְאַל תְּאַחַר; בְּטֶרֶם יָמִים פּוֹנִים

וּמְהֵרָה רוּץ לְעֶזְרָה; לִפְנֵי שׁוֹכֵן מְעוֹנִים

וּמִפֶּשַׁע וְגַם רֶשַׁע; בְּרַח וּפְחַד מֵאֲסוֹנִים

אָנָּא שְׁעֵה שִׁמְךָ; יוֹדְעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶאֱמָנִים


לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה; וְלָנוּ בֹּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים


עֲמֹד כְּגֶבֶר וְהִתְגַּבֵּר; לְהִתְוַדּוֹת עַל חֲטָאִים

יָהּ אֵל דְּרֹשׁ בְּכֹבֶד רֹאשׁ; לְכַפֵּר עַל פְּשָׁעִים

כִּי לְעוֹלָם לֹא נֶעְלָם; מִמֶּנּוּ נִפְלָאִים

וְכָל מַאֲמָר אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמַר; לְפָנָיו הֵם נִקְרָאִים

הַמְרַחֵם הוּא יְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ; כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים


לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה; וְלָנוּ בֹּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים


This poem is a call to self-reflection and to admit where we were wrong. The idea of confession underpins the entire High Holidays. Without first admitting where we’ve gone wrong we cannot expect to do teshuva, the self-growth needed to make amends for those mistakes and to do better in the future. And before we can even confess our errors, we must first be aware that we even made them. That is the power of the opening line of this piyyut.


בֶּן אָדָם מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנִים

O man, why are you sleeping? Arise, call out with supplications!


We first must wake up and take stock of where we are and where we’ve been. The simple meaning of this line, calling on us to wake up and call out to G-d for help and forgiveness, takes on an added layer when we realize that this is almost a direct quote from the story of Jonah. When Jonah attempts to flee from the mission G-d commanded him by boarding a ship, a terrible storm threatens to sink the boat. While all of the crew is praying to their respective gods to be saved from the storm, Jonah goes to the hold of the ship and falls asleep.


וַיִּקְרַב אֵלָיו רַב הַחֹבֵל וַיֹאמֶר לוֹ מַה־לְּךָ נִרְדָּם קוּם קְרָא אֶל־אֱלֹהֶיךָ אוּלי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ וְלֹא נֹאבֵד׃

The captain went over to him and cried out, “Why are you sleeping! Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish.”


The captain is astonished that someone could be asleep amidst so much turmoil and danger without trying to save themselves. It is a literal wake up call. What are we sleeping through? What are we running from? What important work do we still have to do?


And it is also a call to action. Reflection is pointless without action following it. The verse says: קוּם קְרָא Arise, Call out. First, we must awake to the reality around us and the mistakes we have made. But that contemplation cannot be the end. It must be immediately followed by action. We must call out to those we have wronged. We must call out to ourselves as we strive to do better. And we must call out to G-d for forgiveness and for the strength to do that tough inner work as we strive to improve.


As we enter this period of contemplation, may we all arise from whatever slumber we might have fallen into, whatever in our lives we might have become complacent with, and may we verbalize in some form our intentions to improve.



Jewish liturgy is full of metaphorical language, and one metaphor that appears repeatedly in the High Holiday liturgy is that of G-d as king. Other than G-d as father, this is one of the most common metaphors for G-d in Judaism, appearing in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer as well as the Aleinu and Adon Olam.


For most of human history, the metaphor of a king and his subjects would have been a fairly accessible one. A king was the most powerful figure in any particular place and everyone else was subject to their will. The story of Purim, with the threat of Ahasuerus’s royal decrees to the Jewish people, highlights how much power a king had. Thus, to call G-d “king” is to affirm that there is an even higher power than earthly rulers. And the metaphor of a king is linked strongly to one of the names of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgement. According to the mishnah, all creatures are judged on Rosh Hashana. And classically, the king was the ultimate judge, who held the power of life and death.


Adonai Melekh (G-d is King) is a piyyut, a liturgical poem, from 11th century Germany often added before the Kedushah blessing of the Shacharit Amidah on Rosh Hashanah morning. The Kedushah blessing is based around verses from Isaiah and Ezekiel where the angels are praising G-d’s holiness and sovereignty, and the Kedushah can be seen as humans emulating the angels in their praise. The piyyut builds on that idea with each stanza following the same format: a line about the heavenly beings praising G-d followed by a line of earthly beings praising G-d, followed by a line where they praise G-d together. While the original piyyut contains 12 stanzas in total,Mahzor Lev Shalem includes 5 of them, which I have included below.


ADONAI will reign forever and ever!


All those who dwell on high announce God’s glory:                 ADONAI reigns!

All those who dwell on earth offer blessings:                            ADONAI has reigned!

Those above and below raise up their voices, exalting God:     ADONAI will reign!

ADONAI reigns! ADONAI has reigned! ADONAI will reign forever and ever!


All the angels on high skillfully acclaim:                                  ADONAI reigns!

All earthly rulers offer words of praise:                                    ADONAI has reigned!

Those above and below acknowledge with certainty:              ADONAI will reign!

ADONAI reigns! ADONAI has reigned! ADONAI will reign forever and ever!


All powerful forces on high sing:                                            ADONAI reigns!

All mortals vigorously declare:                                               ADONAI has reigned!

Those above and below harmoniously recite:                         ADONAI will reign!

ADONAI reigns! ADONAI has reigned! ADONAI will reign forever and ever!


All holy beings sanctify God with holiness:                           ADONAI reigns!

All the communities of worshippers truthfully declaim:        ADONAI has reigned!

Those above and below peacefully proclaim:                        ADONAI will reign!

ADONAI reigns! ADONAI has reigned! ADONAI will reign forever and ever!


All the fiery sparks are renewed each morning, saying:         ADONAI reigns!

All those treasured from on high whisper quietly:                 ADONAI has reigned!

Those above and below recite the threefold sanctification:    ADONAI will reign!

ADONAI reigns! ADONAI has reigned! ADONAI will reign forever and ever! 

יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד


כּל־שִׁנְאַנֵּי שַֽׁחַק בְּאמֶֹֽר מַאְדִּירִים       יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ

כּל־שֽׁוֹכְנֵי שֶֽׁקֶט בִּבְרָכָה מְבָרְכיִם       יהוה מָלָךְ

אֵֽלּוּ וָאֵֽלּוּ בְּגבַֽהֹּ מַגְדִּילִים                 יהוה יִמְלֹךְ

יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד


כּל־מַלְאֲכֵי מַֽעֲלָה בְּ דֵעָה מַ דְִגּילִים     יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ

כּל־מֽוֹשְׁלֵי מַֽטָּה בְּהַלֵּל מְהַלְלִים     יהוה מָלָךְ

אֵֽלּוּ וָאֵֽלּוּ בְּוַדַּאי מוֹ דִים                  יהוה יִמְלֹךְ

יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד


כּל־עִָריצֵי עֶלְיוֹנִים בְּזֶֽמֶר מְזַמּרְִים       יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ

כּל־עוֹבְרֵי עוֹלָמִים בְּחַֽיִל מְחַ סּנְיִם      יהוה מָלָךְ

אֵֽלּוּ וָאֵֽלּוּ בְּטַֽעַם מְטַ כּסְִים                יהוה יִמְלֹךְ

יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד


כּל־קְדוֹשֵׁי קָדוֹ שׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה מַקְדִּישִׁים     יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ

כּל־קְבוּצֵי קָהָל בְּקֽשֶֹׁט מְקַשְּׁטִים         יהוה מָלָךְ

אֵֽלּוּ וָאֵֽלּוּ בְּנֽעַֹם מַנְעִימִים             יהוה יִמְלֹךְ

יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד


כּל־חַשְׁמַלֵּי זִקִּים לַבְּקִָרים מִתְחַדְּשִׁים    יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ

כּל־תְַּרשִֽׁישֵׁי גֽבַֹהּ בִּדְמָמָה מְלַחֲשִׁים      יהוה מָלָךְ

אֵֽלּוּ וָאֵֽלּוּ בְּשִׁלּוּ שׁמְשַׁלְּשִׁים               יהוה יִמְלֹךְ

יהוה מֶֽלֶךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. 

While Adonai Melekh contains many biblical and rabbinic references, I’d like to focus on the basic structure of the poem. In each stanza, the first line involves heavenly beings praising G-d in some manner and the line ends with “Adonai reigns.” The second line has earthly beings praising G-d and ends with “Adonai reigned.” And the third line describes the heavenly and earthly beings praising G-d in unison and ends with “Adonai will reign.” The final line of every stanza serves as a chorus of sorts connecting the three prior ideas: “Adonai reigns! Adonai has reigned! Adonai will reign forever and ever!”


The immediate effect of this structure is to place emphasis on the timelessness of G-d and specifically of the eternal sovereignty of G-d. G-d has always and will always rule over creation. Yet, the piyyut adds something interesting by the way it structures this idea. יְהוָ֥ה יִמְלֹ֖ךְ לְעֹלָ֥ם וָעֶֽד (Adonai will reign forever and ever) is a direct quote from Exodus, from the Song of the Sea, the song of triumph Moses and the Israelites sing after crossing safely through the Red Sea. The phrasing of that line in the future tense, acknowledging that G-d will reign for eternity, seems to  say it all. Why add the past and present tenses, and why associate each with either heaven or earth?


As human beings, it is much easier for us to look back into our past to see G-d’s impact in our lives then it is to appreciate the divine playing out in the present moment. Hindsight offers the perspective that we human can’t always access in the present. It is even sometimes easier when looking towards the future to hope for divine assitance than it can be to see it in the present. Angels, constantly aware of G-d’s sovereignty, are in the present tense. And when both the humans below and the angels above join together to praise G-d, they acknowledge G-d’s unending sovereignty going forward.


Yet we might expect the order to naturally be past, present, future. Why then does each stanza start with the present tense, then past and future? Maybe because the present is always our starting point. It’s where we are right now. And it is the present moment of prayer on the High Holidays when we most try to transcend the physical day-to-day world and to be like the angels. As a new year begins, we strive to connect with G-d in the present moment, recognizing G-d’s constant role in our lives. Then we reflect on all the ways G-d has guided and strengthened and even tested us over the past year. And then we look forward to the coming year, accepting that ultimately much of what happens will be out of our control.


The power of Rosh Hashanah lies in creating space to do all three things together at once. To say, “Adonai reigns! Adonai has reigned! Adonai will reign forever and ever!”




The line “who by fire, who by water” might sound familiar to you. It is both the opening line of Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire” and one of the more well-known lines of the High Holiday piyyut Unetaneh Tokef. Cohen, the grandson of a rabbi, worked Jewish references into a lot of his songs and “Who by Fire” can be read almost as a commentary of Unetaneh Tokef.


                Unetaneh Tokef                                                                     Who by Fire

Let us speak of the sacred power of this day—profound and

awe-inspiring. On it, Your sovereignty is celebrated, and Your

throne, from which You rule in truth, is established with love.

Truly, You are Judge and Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness,

completing the indictment, bringing the case, and enumerating

the counts. You recall all that is forgotten, and will open

the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own hands have signed the page.

The great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard.

Angels will be alarmed, seized with fear and trembling, declaring,

“This very day is the Day of Judgment”—for even the

hosts of heaven are judged; no one is innocent in Your sight.

All that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep.

As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass

under the staff, so You will review and number and count,

judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny.


On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!


How many will pass on, and how many will be born;

who will live and who will die;

who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and

who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by

earthquake and who by plague.

who will be strangled and who will be stoned;

who will be at peace and who will be troubled;

who will be serene and who will be disturbed;

who will be tranquil and who will be tormented;

who will be impoverished and who will be enriched;

who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.


But T’shuvah, T’fillah, and Tz’dakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.


Our praise of You accords with Your essential

nature: slow to anger and easily appeased.

You do not desire the death of the sinner, but

rather that we change our ways and live.

You wait until the day of death, and if one returns,

You accept that person back immediately.

Truly, You are their Creator, and know the nature

of Your creatures, that they are only flesh and blood.


Each person’s origin is dust, and each person will

return to the earth having spent life seeking

sustenance. Scripture compares human beings

to a broken shard, withering grass,

a shriveled flower, a passing shadow,

a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze,

scattered dust, a vanishing dream.


And You—You are the Sovereign, living God, ever-present.

Your years never end,

Your time has no measure,

the extent of Your glory can never be imagined,

for there is no understanding of the mystery of Your nature.

Your name befits You, as You befit Your name,

and You have linked our name with Yours.


Act kindly for the sake of Your name,

and sanctify Your name with those who hallow Your name.

Do so for the honor of Your revered and holy name.

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
Who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?


Unetaneh Tokef is traditionally read on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur before the Kedushah section of the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah. It highlights the major themes of the High Holidays: the sovereignty of G-d, judgement, repentance, and the fragility of human life.


“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed”. The theology underlying the poem is based on the Talmudic teaching that on Rosh Hashana three books are opened in heaven: the Book of Life in which the wholly righteous are immediately inscribed, the Book of Death in which the wholly wicked are inscribed, and the book for those who are in-between being fully righteous or fully wicked, which I imagine is most of us. On Yom Kippur, those who are in-between are moved to either the Book of Life or of Death. This is what gives the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, such significance as we strive to tip our scales towards the Book of Life. The traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting, Leshana Tova Tikatevu, contains this idea. “May you be inscribed for a good year.”


The High Holidays are the most existential days in the Jewish calendar. Life and death hang in the balance. We pray each year for a good year, but we ultimately don’t know what lies ahead. That is heavy. But it’s also strangely liberating in a way that I think “Who by Fire” and Unetaneh Tokef both touch on. It’s the inevitability that is liberating preciously because it’s inevitable and universal. Something will happen to each of as some point and there’s only so much we as individual humans can know or do about that fate. We’re all along on the same ride and we have control but only a little. And just becoming aware of our own limitations and lack of complete control has the paradoxical potential to reassure us and give us strength. 


Unetaneh Tokef frames the High Holidays as a life-or-death struggle to avert a negative judgement and be sealed in the Book of Life. Yet it offers hope with the line “But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree”. According to the theology of the poem, death is ultimately unavoidable but the how and when is somewhat in our control. It’s still a hard theology in many ways but a very classic one that undergirds a lot of the High Holiday liturgy.


Leonard Cohen takes a different approach in his song. He doesn’t let up from the inevitability of death and in fact questions the G-d-centric theology of Unetaneh Tokef with the refrain “And who shall I say is calling?”. Cohen is essentially asking who’s in charge? Do we have all the control over our destinies (“Who by his own hand”), some control (“who by his lady’s command”), or no control (“Who by accident”)? Unetaneh Tokef makes it clear G-d is ultimately in control. Leonard Cohen challenges that in a very postmodern way. He doesn’t necessarily disagree but instead leaves it as an open question: “And who shall I say is calling?”


In the face of so much tragedy in our world it’s natural for us to ask if there’s something behind it all, if there’s a greater plan. I think Cohen is suggesting that all we can do is ask the question: “And who shall I say is calling?”  We may not have the answer but just asking the question has power. It elevates human suffering, the inevitability of death, to an existential level. It goes beyond us as individuals, all the way to the nature of the universe.


In that light, “And who shall I say is calling” isn’t just a challenge at the theology of Unetaneh Tokef. It’s also a prayer to try to know G-d, to get a little closer to knowing the force behind this world. And it can be both at the same time. So, when we read Unetaneh Tokef this year, I hope you will keep in mind “Who by Fire” and maybe even feel stirred to ask “And who shall I say is calling?”.



Today the world stands as at birth.

Today all creation is called to judgment,

whether as Your children or as Your servants.

If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children.

If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting

for You to be gracious to us and, as day emerges from night, to bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf,

Awe-inspiring and Holy One.

{translation from Mahzor Lev Shalem}


הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם
הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמים
אִם כְּבָנִים אִם כַּעֲבָדִים
אִם כְּבָנִים רַחֲמֵנוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים
וְאִם כַּעֲבָדִים עֵינֵינוּ לְךָ תְלוּיוֹת
עַד שֶׁתְּחָנֵּנוּ וְתוֹצִיא כָאוֹר מִשְׁפָּטֵנוּ
אָיוֹם קָדוֹשׁ


Rosh Hashanah is traditionally thought to be the sixth day of Creation, the day humans were created. And it is also seen as the Day of Judgement, Yom Ha-Din. The short piyyut Ha-Yom Harat Olam plays with this binary of creation and judgment, along with other thematic binaries of Rosh Hashana like father and sovereign, and mercy and strict justice. This anonymous poem ends of each of the three special sections of the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf Amidah.


The poem’s first line is translated above by Mahzor Lev Shalem as “Today the world stands at birth” but הרת can also be translated as conceived or even pregnant. All of these translations convey a sense of potential. The world is on the edge of being completed. And with the creation of humanity on the sixth day there is also all of the potential that humans have to affect the rest of the world, for good or for bad.


These translations also all carry an association with reproduction. The world isn’t just being created, it is being birthed or conceived. There’s a multi-stage process, just like conception to pregnancy to birth. In fact, in the Talmud there’s a debate about whether the world was created in the month of Tishrei (when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah) or in the month of Nissan (when we celebrate Passover). Rabbeinu Tam, a medieval Rabbi, reconciled these two opinions by saying that G-d conceived the idea of the world in Tishrei but actually did the work in Nissan. This idea brings up some complex theological questions, but I think it can be powerful to view Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah as the starting point of creation, the first step. It’s not the actualization but the potential. Rosh Hashanah is a day filled with creative potential. As the first day of a new year, it holds all of the possibilities for the coming year within it.


The second line of the poem moves from the day of the world’s conception to the day the world is judged. And while at first those two ideas might seem unrelated or even opposed, they make a lot of sense together. If Rosh Hashanah commemorates when the idea of creating the world took place, or even if it marks the creation of humanity, these were times filled with potential, with expectation. So each year, on the anniversary of that moment of expectation and promise, we are judged to see if we lived up to the mark. It’s a simple but radical idea. Imagine if each year on your birthday you reviewed the previous year to see how much you fulfilled the potential of your birth. It would still be a celebratory time but also a reflective one, and that reflection would likely shape the course of the following year.


The third line of the piyyut uses the metaphors of children or servants being judged. This aligns with the common Rosh Hashanah metaphors of G-d as both Father and King/Master. And these metaphors match well with the dual ideas of Day of Conception/Birth and Day of Judgment. The specific focus given to the day shifts the metaphor of G-d used. The poem branches down these two paths requesting different things depending on which way of relating to G-d is chosen. As children we ask for compassion. As servants we ask for forgiveness and a favorable judgement. But why do we need both metaphors? Why not just be children asking for compassion? Or just servants? If we view this moment of judgement as one in which we are judged against the measure of our own potential, then we need both in a way. A child who doesn’t live up to their potential and falls short by skipping school or misbehaving, needs compassion from their parent in order to be guided back to the right path. A servant who doesn’t live up to expectations and steals or is careless in their work, may face sterner consequences but still needs to be forgiven by their employer to keep serving them and hopes their master will judge in light of all the other good work they’ve done. This poem highlights that our relationship with G-d is complex, and not just one way all the time.


The final line, אָיוֹם קָדוֹשׁ, “Awe-Inspiring and Holy One,” synthesizes these ideas. איום can also be translated as terrifying or threatening. It relates to the metaphor of G-d as a sovereign passing strict judgement but קָדוֹשׁ, Holy One, can represent the more transcendent merciful aspect of G-d which can also be linked to the metaphor of father. On Rosh Hashana we hold both metaphors simultaneously, celebrating the birth of the world while standing in judgement over the role we’ve played in that creation. May we go into this new year excited about all of the potential it holds and also aware of the ways we didn’t meet our full potential in the previous.