Jeremiah: his prophecy returns in poetic form on Yom Kippur. In the Hebrew piyyut, liturgical poem, Ki Hiney Kachomer: We Are As Clay.
As clay in the hand of the potter/ who thickens or thins it at will/ so are we in Your hand / Guardian of love// Recall Your covenant; do not heed the accuser (trans. Machzor Lev Shalom).
Jeremiah: Words of Warning
Here’s the history—in brief It’s the year 600 BCE, in Jerusalem, in the old kingdom of Judah. Just to the northeast, the Babylonian empire is growing, invading every small kingdom it can. The kings of Judah are doing what they can to appease the empire, and to keep their status as aristocrats, without concern for the ordinary people of Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah warns the kings of Judah: this is a foolish strategy, it is a lose-lose for everyone.
One day Jeremiah goes out to the pottery studio. The ceramic artist is working at the wheel. The artist makes a mistake and the pot gets a bit deformed. But without skipping a beat, the artist simply changes up the shape and makes something new.
And Jeremiah, a master of metaphor, sees in this a message from God. “Just like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in My hands! At one moment I may decree that a nation shall be uprooted, but if that nation turns back from its wickedness, I change my mind.” (Jer. 18: 6-7)
But—as Jeremiah tells it—the kings of Judah do not turn away from corrupt imperial politics. So in the year 586 BCE, the Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem, and exiles most of its people, relocating them to Babylonia.
Isaiah: Words of Comfort
But just 50 years later, regional politics shift, and a new Persian emperor sends the Jews back home. The prophet Isaiah takes up the artisan theme and says, “God. We are the clay. You are the Potter. Look at us please. We are all the work of Your hands. Don’t be so angry; don’t hold our mistakes against us forever.” (Isa. 64: 7-8)
The piyyut Ki Hinei Kachomer reminds us of the messages of both these prophets. We do make mistakes and sometimes they have terrible consequences. But our mistakes don’t have to haunt us forever. We can reshape our lives in tangible ways. Our ancestors who were exiled did return, and so can we.
Words offered during the Erev Yom Kippur service at Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver.