During the High Holy Days season, my synagogue—and many synagogues around the world—sing Rachamana D’Aney, a heart-wrenching plea to the Almighty.
O Merciful One, who answers those in need, answer us!
O Merciful One, who answers the brokenhearted, answer us! Answer us!
It’s traditionally sung at Selichot and again as the gates close in Neilah but there’s no reason why it can’t be used at other times, especially when facing collective grief. I can not imagine a more fitting prayer for the Hebrew slaves of Egypt to sing as they begin to have hope of leaving their misery behind.
Unfortunately, they didn’t. The song is in Aramaic and the Jews spoke Canaanite when in Egypt, the language which eventually split into several, including Hebrew. Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the native language of many Jews in the 6th century BCE, about 800 years later than (one of the possible times for) the Exodus.
Including this prayer that I love so deeply is one of the deliberate anachronisms of Out of Egypt.
I also bring to the chapter elements from a Chassidic story no more than 300 years old.
Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.
Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” — Or Yesharim (published in Tales of the Hasidim, collected by Martin Buber, copyright 1947 by Schocken Books)
It is the very brokenness that catches God’s attention. Prayers that come from the deepest reaches of the heart. A most lovely teaching on this topic comes from my synagogue’s Rabbi.
Imagine the Jews, still slaves in Egypt. Moses has returned, bringing with him not only hope, but Pharaoh’s wrath. Their back-breaking labor grew even worse. Moses and Aaron have gone to Pharaoh again and again and God has, so far, unleashed 9 plagues, each more horrible than the last. Now they call to the Merciful One to guide them to a better life. But first, Adonai must hear them. God must answer.
My synagogue’s rendition of the prayer is simple. A drum and voices. This version has only one voice but, at High Holy Days, there are over one hundred.