The Song Lyrics that Remind Me to Be Humbled
Katonti mi’kol ha’hasadim u’mi’kol ha’emet she’asita et av’deha. (I am unworthy of all the kindness and the truth that You have steadfastly shown Your servant.) These are the opening words of a song by American-Israeli musician Yonatan Razel. They are also, not coincidentally, the words spoken by our patriarch Jacob in Genesis 32:11.
Razel, a Haredi composer, often transforms the words of our tradition by setting them to music. This passage comes right before Jacob encounters his older brother, Esau, for the first time since stealing his blessing and fleeing home. Fearing imminent harm or even death, Jacob calls out to God with the word “Katonti,” interpreted variably as “I am unworthy” or “I am made small” or “I am humbled.”
Both the song and its sentiment of humility and gratitude wove their way through a recent trip to the Negev desert here in Israel.
The trip was organized by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as a break following a couple of difficult weeks in school. Test after test had piled up alongside presentations and papers and the standard homework load. In almost every class, I felt humbled; whatever illusions I had about my own base of knowledge coming into rabbinical school, it was clear just how hard I would need to work to master the material laid out by my teachers. It was during one of these classes, Parashat Ha’Shavua or Weekly Torah Portion, that we first listened to Razel’s Katonti as a cohort. It must have struck a chord, because a few days later, our prayer leaders performed the song during the t’filah (prayer or worship) service. Listening to the lovely voices and masterful piano playing of my classmates, I was once again humbled.
After loading ourselves onto the bus and traveling south for many hours, our group arrived at Kibbutz Yahel, one of two Reform Movement collectives in Israel. The trip dates overlapped with Thanksgiving, a holiday that caused our predominantly American cohort to feel pangs of homesickness. We had been told that we would have dinner together that night, but we were all humbled by the thoughtfulness and hospitality of the kitchen staff. That evening, two huge turkeys were carved (not an easy food to find in Israel) and served alongside other traditional dishes including mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Several students also worked in the kitchen to make pecan pies, brownies, and apple crumble. In the face of these incredible efforts to make us all feel more at home, I certainly felt small.
In addition to celebrating an American holiday together, we also celebrated Shabbat while in the Negev. That week we read from the Torah the words of our forefather Jacob and closed the service with the song “Katonti.” A group of young Israelis living on the kibbutz had joined our cohort to pray together, and as the song played, I looked around and saw that we were all connected through this common music, this common language. The gaps that often divide Israeli and North American cultures were made smaller by singing together our shared text.
Night descended as Shabbat drew to a close, and we started the drive back north. My bus buddy pointed out how large the moon looked as it slowly rose in the sky, up over the Negev’s massive mountains and dry plains. The vastness of the desert has always made me feel small, almost insignificant in a way that is tremendously liberating. Before the stress of my tiny problems – my exams and my papers – set back in, I put in my headphones, looked up at the moon, and listened to the lyrics that reminded me all week to feel humbled in the face of the world’s kindness and beauty.