ESA EINAI comes from Psalm 121, the 121st Psalm. And it is one of 15 Songs or Psalms of Ascent.
From Psalm 120 through Psalm 134, there are 15 Psalms that begin with the Hebrew words, SHIR HAMAALOT or SHIR LA'MAALOT, "A Song of Ascents" or "A Song for Ascents."
These 15 Psalms have been connected with the 15 steps leading up to the temple as though the ancient Levites sang a song for each step as they went up, as they entered into the temple.
This is a Psalm that already has several familiar melodies. You may know Shlomo Carlebach's ESA EINAI EL HEHARIM.
Or Yosef Karduner has a beautiful SHIR HAMAALOT ESA EINAI EL HEHARIM MEI'AYIN YAVO EZRI.
So it's a beloved psalm. It's engendered many beloved melodies already.
My melody for this psalm is different from those two in at least that it has both a major and a minor mode. First we start in the minor [mode] YAI DAI DAI... Like so many niggunim, kind of setting up a question: "Why? Why? YAI YAI YAI... Why why why why?"
And then the second half of the melody is major. We've shifted the key. We've gone to see the other side. Yes, we are here in a major mode, which is more expansive and more open-hearted or uplifting many different associations with the major mode. Then we go back to the minor. DAI DAI DAI DAI...
So these two modes — major and minor, of expansion and contraction, of asking and answering, of giving and receiving — are already set up in the musical moods and modes of this particular song.
So let's look at the words. I said that this is called a SHIR LEMAALOT, a Song of Ascents, but we actually skip over those first two kind of title words, and we encounter ESA. "I will lift" in the future tense. "I will lift my eyes." ESA EINAI. "I will lift my eyes" EL HEHARIM HARIM "up to the mountains."
So when I first learned this verse to Shlomo Carlebach's melody, it was in the case of funeral liturgy. I heard this sung by one of my [childhood] rabbis at funerals. "From where will my help come from?" I lift up my eyes... in the same way I throw up my hands, at a loss for words, a loss of understanding.
In PEREK SHIRAH — there's a beautiful text that is called "The Chapters of Song". PEREK SHIRAH goes through all of the animals, all of the creatures of the world, and imagined "what does the cat say? And what does the cow say? And what do the mountains say? What are do the fields say?" And in the case of the grasshoppers, PEREK SHIRAH says that they say this verse ESA EINAI EL HEHARIM. "I lift my eyes up to the mountains from where will my help come? Where does my help come from?" As though being that grasshopper, being that kind of underdog, the way that the Israelites saw themselves as grasshoppers in the eyes of the giants, in approaching the land and the story of the 12 spies who go to scout the land, they say "we are but grasshoppers in our own eyes." This sense of feeling small, needing of protection. And so Perek Shirah says, this is the song of the grasshoppers.
It actually says the TZIPROET KERAMIM, "the birdies of the vineyard," which was interpreted as grasshoppers. But if we look at those words, it's like the sirens, or the cry from the vineyard, those chirping things. There's like a sense, if we listen to the hum of a field, they're all asking "where, where, where does my help come from?"
And even in the way that I've placed the English interpretation, "I lift... I lift my eyes... I lift my eyes to the mountain," It's as though each word is like a song of ascent. It creates the shape of a mountain. "I lift... I lift my eyes... I lift my eyes to the mountain" as though each breath, each part of the melody, each step deeper into the chant is an ascent and descent and going deeper and higher into this question of from where will my help come from.
So EZRI. My help. The first time we encountered this word in the Torah, is EZER KENEGDO — the partner of ADAM RISHON, the partner of the first person in creation is known as an EZER KENEGDO, "a help meet against".
LA'AZOR is to help, but it's really interesting that this first context is a help that is KE'NEGED, or opposing. An opposing force. So in the same way, as we have the minor and major modes in the music, it's as though the question of our spiritual quest arises and in the question is the help or is the response.
EZRI, "my help." So the first line ends "Where will my help come from?" And the response of the second line is HASHEM, " my help comes from HASHEM." So the text actually reads as EZRI MEI'IM YOD HEY VAV HEY. "My help will come from God," from the Holy Blessed One, that ineffable name. My help will come from That One.
When we say Hashem, we're actually saying that unpronounceable name. The Name that is beyond all names. OSEH SHAMAYIM VA'ARETZ. "The maker of heavens and earth."
So it's really interesting, this epithet this language of the divine is not the one who made heavens and earth, but the one who makes heavens and earth, OSEH SHAMAYIM. The One who's making the skies and the vault and the expanse out there, VA'ARETZ and the very tangible, tactile, landed, grounded, embodied aspect.
And this in biblical Hebrew is known as a merism, M E R I S M. That a two-word phrase connected by the word "and" refers not only to the two things but everything in between. So the first time we have this in the very first line, Book of Genesis BERESHEIT BARA ELOHIM. "In the beginning", or "in beginning, God created," ET HASHAMAYIM VE'ET HA'ARETZ. The heavens and the earth.
So this Psalm is calling back to the very beginning of creation. And maybe to the primordial question that all self-aware or sentient beings ask, "I'm in need. And where is my help going to come from? Or where is the response from my desire, my calling out, what is going to echo my call?"
I lift my eyes. I look up, I look for inspiration to the mountains. I look from my small grasshopper-like perspective, up to the vastness, up to the majesty, up to the mountain ranges.
MEI'AYIN from where will my help come from? MEI AYIN means from where, but Kabbalistic speaking. We can read this word as from out of nothing. AYIN means nothing.
And here is a play on the word for eye, to see. And AYIN with an ALEPH: "nothingness." So in the Kabbalah, there are a few more names or ways to think about the Divine.
And these are EIN SOF OR or is one beautiful name, "light without end." EIN SOF OR "light without end."
Sometimes abbreviated just to EIN SOF, "without end," the Infinite, and we might call that aspect of God, the infinite EIN SOF. And reducing that three word EIN SOF OR, down to two words, EIN SOF down to just a word EIN or AYIN. That to call God nothing is reminiscent of actually how we speak of God as HASHEM. We see this word, this unpronounceable word — YOD HEY VAV HEY — and we say, that's "The Name" in some way by saying, God is nothing. We can say that God is absolutely empty of all attributes. That anything we could say about the infinite or anything we could conceptualize about the source of consciousness Itself is really not it. So we could say that God is the capital-N Nothing.
MEI'AYIN from Nothingness, from out of that nothing, will my help... does my help arise.
It's almost to say that the very question is the answer. Or in the very call for help is the response. And again, this is the way the music and this chant plays with major and minor, with call and response, with seeking and with finding, with being on a journey and also being fully present with where we are.
So the English is an attempt to capture some of these ideas, but also to expand and extend the metaphor a little bit further. I lift my eyes to the mountains, this lifting ESA EINAI EL HEHARIM. HARIM is the word for mountains, of course, the familiar place of revelation, of majesty, of feeling the revelation of something larger than the individual self.
HARIM. HEHARIM also sounded to my ear like HARAH, pregnancy. Like to being full of this potential. That we're in some way born of the earth or born of the marriage of heavens and earth, where the mountains pierce the heavens, or where the heavens receive the earth, receive the peaks
HEHARIM, pregnancy. " I carry the weight of the world being born", this notion of the earth and sky, our yearning and the response, being as though there's a cosmic birth process.
"I carry the weight of the world being born" actually gives name to this entire album, this collection of songs, which are a collection of Rosh Hashanah, of the birthday of the world songs. Rosh Hashanah celebrates many things, including HAYOM HARAT OLAM, "the birth of the earth", the world being born, in the process, in the same way that this Psalm speaks of the OSEH SHAMAYIM, "the one who is making heavens and earth" and how we participate in that process, being borne, being carried, born with an E at the end, as though we're carrying this birth process of the world within ourselves.
"Help me, help me to see..." Here we return to the prayerfulness, but in the major mode "help me to see the light of your presence in every form." Sometimes we have this sense, this dualistic sense, that the physical world in some way, conceals, or is Maya, is illusory. And yet this prayer comes from the place of desiring to see the divine presence and eminence together in the physical world, "help me to see the light of your presence in every form." Even as I stare at this camera lens, or you look at this screen, there's something divine here, the divine spark of awareness, that unnameable HASHEM, that AYIN, which the Buddhists called Emptiness, which is an emptiness that is really full.
"Help me, help me to hear the voice of your guidance through every storm." So there is the paradigm of hearing the revelation, of seeing the sounds. There's a BAT KOL, "a voice from heaven," that is subtle and sometimes audible, even in the depths of the storm, even when we're being tossed and we don't know which way is up, we can still experience an aspect of divinity in that darkness, in that concealment, in that storm. The light and guidance that comes, even if we don't know which way is up, that total disorientation, a yearning to return to HASHEM, returning to that unnameable name or turning to that. And once we have fallen down to get up again, ESA EINAI, right?
YERIDAH LETZORECH ALIYAH, "descent for the sake of ascent." The shattering for the sake of wholeness. It's one song on the many-step path up and down the steps to the temple.
May this song be one that helps you participate in the world being born. That in our greatest and most expansive heights of heaven, we still remember and keep our feet on earth and walk our talk. And sometimes when we feel stuck or entrenched in the regular, repetitive, mundane world to know that everything in it has a spark of this divine awareness, whether in our food, in our parenting, in our lying down and our rising up that this up and down, this call-and-response, this major-minor mode, is an opportunity to sing and be sung as part of the lullaby of all life.
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