Save Us! The Meaning of Hoshanah

If I was a Martian visiting our synagogue, I would be very perplexed by the ritual after Musaf. Taking plants from three different species which are bound together, along with a citron, and walking around the synagogue imploring of God HOSHANA, Save Us! Why do we do such a ritual.

As with most piyutim (liturgical poems) we give examples of how God has saved us in the past. We describe how God saved us from slavery and from Egypt, imploring God to save us again now.

Why do we do this? According to tradition, the Days of Repentance do not end until Hoshana Rabbah, this coming Sunday, a day on which we make seven circles which ends with us beating willows and being forgiven for our sins. Therefore, up until that point we are still beseeching God for forgiveness, to “save us” and put us in the Book of Life for the new year. In Temple times, willows adorned the altar, a sign that the weakest of the species, the one with no smell or taste, still played a central role in our atonement, just as each of us has a role in strengthening our community.

This is not the only time on Sukkot that we are asking for God’s mercy. We also ask God to save us during the Hallel when we repeat after the prayer leader, אנא ה הושיעה נא, Please God save us! Mishnah Sukkah 4:2 teaches that each day of Sukkot in the Temple the Israelites circled the altar once saying “Please God save us, please God make us prosper!” אנא ה הצליחה נא   אנא ה הושיעה נא Rabbi Yehudah said that they would say “Please God save me and Him,” אני והו הושיעה נא, the same words that we say in the Hoshana prayer. Who is the Him? God himself!

This is the only time that I know of that הו is used as a name of God in our liturgy. It is also the only time I have seen it as a truncated form for the word הוא, or he. It forms the middle two letters of God’s name, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, whereas normally our shorter name for God is the first two letters, יה. Why was this name chosen? The Tosafot on Sukkah 45a reference Ezekiel 1:1 “I (ANI) was among the exiles” and 40:1 “He (VeHU) was bound in chains among all the exiles from Jerusalem and Judah. They interpret this as God himself was in exile, if one can say such a thing. Because of this, the Hoshana prayer asks for God to save Himself.

At first glance this appears to be a radical (and blasphemous) interpretation. How dare we say that the omnipotent God was in exile! However, I would argue that there is precedent for such a view. The rabbis teach that God’s presence, the שכינה, followed our ancestors into the Babylonian exile. God was marching and weeping alongside us. Furthermore, Talmud Avodah Zarah 29a teaches that when we return from exile, in the Messianic Age, God will return alongside us.

Some will likely remain upset with the concept of a God in exile, yet I find comfort from it. It means that no matter where we are in life, God is with us. If God were not in exile, suffering with us, we would not be able to connect to Him. We would feel that God is callous, not caring about our fate during times of persecution, not lifting a finger to help us. Instead God is with us in every moment, and we pray for both of our salvation.

And so we pray. We pray that God not be forgotten about in this age of growing popularity of the “nones,” those with no religion. In an age of secularity we need to pray that God’s presence remain part and parcel of our society rather than being relegated to a position of exile. We pray that God help enable our congregation and other religious institutions to prosper, to be a house of godliness for generations to come. Most of all, we pray that God give us the willpower, strength and guidance to make those decisions we need to make to be beneficial for our future.

God is with us, both in our times of jubilation and in our times of sadness, when we feel victorious and when we feel vanquished, when we are in the Land of Milk and Honey and when we are in the Diaspora. God is with us-it is just up to us to find Him. May we always remember that we are never alone and may we use that knowledge to bring wonderful things into fruition in the year 5776. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be our will to do so. Hag Sukkot Sameach.

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