Yosef S. Razin
Yosef S. Razin

Of Profanity and Prayer: Making Space for חול

Photo by Bandelier National Monument, via Flickr
Photo by Bandelier National Monument, via Flickr

It’s the season of holiness, we have donned our white vestments, proclaimed God’s Kingship, and are preparing to cease our mundane eating and drinking, to spend a sacred day as angels with our Creator.  We aim to enter the holy, קדוש, a sacred sanctum out of time and space, separated and elevated. But separated from what? The profane, of course. Or is it that simple?

The profane in Hebrew is חול, that from which the holy is separated.  Thus, its root ח.ל.ה  also contains a sense of separation, the remainder.  More surprisingly is how often this root and the closely related one of ח.ל.ל appear in this season’s liturgy.  While ח.ל.ה  focuses on that which was separated from, ח.ל.ל focuses on the space which was created through separation.  Etymologically it is emptying out, specifically by piercing, such as when one makes a flute (חליל). However, it is also used in the formation of humans – in this week’s parasha God is described as מחללך (Dt. 32:18), the One who hollowed us out during our formation.  After which God fills us with His Divine breath, like when we play a flute, creating music and vitality out of thin wavering air and empty space.  Often we sense this space as a deep vulnerability and dangerous lack, such as in the corpse (חלל) and the sick (חולה).  Being forced to recognize such lack is fraught with pain, causing us to tremble (חולל, Ps. 29:9) and undergo painful travails (חיל, Ps. 48:7). 

And yet this is the season where we are מיחלים לחסדו (Ps. 33:18), standing in hope of His grace.  We hope to pray as Moshe (ויחל משה, Ex. 32:11) when God revealed to him His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.  Once you start to pay attention it is almost unbelievable how often these two roots appear again and again in our slichot and High Holiday prayers.  ֵEspecially so, considering these are not the usual words for hope or prayer, תקוה or תפילה. Why do we switch to stressing this specific language during the High Holidays?  What is the connection between profanity and prayer?

Both in hope and in prayer, we intentionally recognize our fundamental lack, the space within, which we cannot fill alone.  And in this intentionality, we bravely choose to make space for the holy to re-vitalize us, filling our shofar with our plaintive, piercing cry, awakening and echoing our sense of vulnerability. But in the face of this awe-ful uncertainty, trembling (חיל) before God, we are called to endure, remaining steadfast and brave (חילֹ).  This is the season where we strive to bring down Divine holiness by elevating ourselves, from meeting the King in His field, to reenacting the moment when God was but ten handbreadths away at Sinai, to aspiring to be angels.

This time of year God is reaching down to us, and we respond by making ourselves open to the possibility of reconnecting through תשובה, repentance.  The first element we aim to achieve through repentance  is מחילה.  Generally translated as wiping clean, we can now understand from the word’s root that it is about asking God and people to make space for us by letting go of past wrongs, as well as anger and hurt feelings.  Only through that reconciliatory space-making can there be a possibility of rebuilding our relationships.  Likewise, this is the start of the year, התחלת השנה. What does this root have to do with starting (התחלה)?  When we set out to start something, we reflexively make space for ourselves to venture out, explore, and build in the space of yet unrealized potential.   Holiness (קדושה), on the other hand, is carefully defined and delineated; while it may be tapping into the Infinite Divine, in this world holiness is limited and constrained and must be guarded against being profaned (חילול).  Yet, without the careful separation that holiness requires, there is no space to be filled in its wake.  Just as without space a flute (חליל) would be struck silent and without uncertainty there would be no need for valor (חיל), the profane (חול) provides space for creative action and forgiveness (מחילה) provides space for re-building relationships.  By elevating our lives through holiness, we imbue the everyday ‘profane’ with sacred meaning, creating the necessary space for the breadth of Divine life to re-attune us to the music of Creation, in resonance with the Will of our Creator.

Special thanks to David Kolinsky for his thoughts on the etymological connections, challenging me to make space for other possibilities

About the Author
Yosef Razin is a Ph.D. candidate in Human-Robot Trust at the Georgia Institute of Technology, with an avid interest in Jewish history and a love for Jewish Studies.
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