We are like clay in designer’s hand,
As he wills—to contract, as he wills—to expand,
So are we in your hand to lovingly define,
Look past our designs keep the covenant in mind.
An anonymous prayer poet shaped Jeremiah’s image (Jeremiah 18:6) of God, the Potter, into a Yom Kippur plea: O, Designer/Yotzer! Overlook our impulsive designs/yetzer and be mindful only of our covenant!
(Click here for the Jeremiah verse and the stanza of the Yom Kippur poem)
For poet and prophet, God is the Potter-All-Powerful who understands and overlooks. But the great 20th century potter-philosopher, M.C. Richards, in her work, Centering, offers a potter more real. In her knowing hands, a different theology takes shape and the potter is not all-powerful:
The potter does everything that he can do. But he cannot burst into flame and reach a temperature of 2300 degrees Fahrenheit for a period varying from eight hours to a week and harden plastic clay into rigid stone, and transform particles of silica and spar into flowing glaze… He can only surrender his ware to the fire, listen to it, talk to it, so that he and the fire respond to each other’s power, and the fired pot is the child.
The potter can do but so much. The Days of Awe are for each fired-pot child to attend to her own yetzer, to her own impulses, to the heat and glaze of his own life. Unable to share the experience of the kiln, the potter surrenders, listens, talks and responds. Perhaps this is a Potter to meet during the Days of Awe—a Potter who supports the vessels for the work that only they can accomplish.
Two Israeli poets examine the living clay—inside and out. Yehuda Amichai dredges up vessels of experiences from the depths. Encrusted or adorned, the basic shape of the jar is unchanged in the depths plumbed from ships that soar in the watery heavens above. Don’t clean the clay of its experience! Color and crust tell the ongoing story of the basic shape beneath:
My experiences are like jars sunk in the sea long ago
brought up from the sea bed covered with moss
and seaweed and barnacles all over, but the shape of the jars is still
as it was. So are my experiences, the cry is still my cry
and the laugh still my laughter. Don’t try to clean
them. The laugh is heavy and deep from the depths
and the cry is adorned with sediment thick and beautiful from the abyss.
This too is change this too a different place
and all the ships are in the heights of the heavens.
(Click here for Amichai’s poem in Hebrew and English)
Amichai examines accretions to the outer surface of the clay. Another Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, attends to the unseen interior:
And in the beauty of the jar is the oil captured
between olive and light
Bend your ear to the jar
the creating resonance of the innerness.
(Click here for Rivka Miriam’s poem in Hebrew and English)
We, along with the poets, examine the clay inside and out. M.C. Richards, master potter, assures us that inside and outside are one and that our turning—Teshuvah—both this way and that—is natural:
The outer shape of the clay is the extension of its center. We press out from the center and make the pot: the outside is the surface of the inside. We turn inward and outward with the same naturalness…
As human beings functioning as potters, we center ourselves and our clay…
The pot becomes the potter. May the pot be becoming to the potter.
Thanks Rabbi Sager. The tune of the fragment you started with is one of my favorites of Y”K, and stays with me for weeks afterward – thanks for getting me started early and for this nice meditation on pot.
I’ve been enjoying these sichot, but this one is the most beautiful ever. I love the piyyut from Kol Nidre and this sicha moment brings it to life.
G’mar Chatima Tova.
I loved the way you brought three voices plus your own into this conversation!!
A lovely, poetic, and when I think about it, truer than usual translation of this familiar piyyut–as if keeping the covenant involves overlooking not the machinations of an outside accuser but our own countering designs.
I daresay this sicha raises the question of how much we are then, after all, passively molded like clay pots by outside forces (whether human or Divine), versus how much power we have to shape our own destinies, the latter the very idea of teshuvah.
The hiddush for me here comes in the acknowledgment of a third force in the creation of the pot out of clay – the fire, with all its unpredictabilty and transforming force. The creative process – by analogy the process of forming a person – simply cannot happen without the fire. I immediately thought of this story from author Dani Shapiro (marked as #2) – http://www.letmypeoplesing.com/jewels/
Wonderful associations! Thanks to Rabbi Sager for this post!
Of course as a glass person I jump down to that verse. We are just sand, ‘afar va-efer, but when we get heated up in that iron furnace we can take on some beautiful shapes and colors. All very miraculous, all very fragile!
Shanah Tovah! A.G.
New thoughts on this famous piyyut–On the one hand, it suggests that we are just the material, with no control. On the other hand, it acknowledges that G-d also needs to work with us as we are, within and around our limitations to help us achieve the best design of what we can be (e.g , what works for clay does not for glass or iron)–sometimes even against our own idea of what that is.
Thanks for reposting and Shanah Tovah.