(This post comes with background music. If you listen to a capella singing during the omer, press play below now. “Ana Hashem”, sung by Nachum Stark, from “A Sefirah Kumzitz”.)
There is a story about an early Gerer chassid who went to the “Chiddushei haRim” (Rav Yitzchaq Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, 1799-1866) with a heavy problem. His business had been failing for a while, and now he was far behind on a number of bills, and facing the threat of debtor’s prison. The next day happened to be Rosh Chodesh, and the ChR advised the chassid that when he said Hallel the next day, he should say “Ana Hashem” with extra kavanah.
After the rebbe walked away, the man and his friend got into a heated argument about what exactly the advice was: One chassid insisted the rebbe meant “Ana Hashem hoshia na — Please, Hashem, save!” because the man needed to be saved from prison. The other was sure it was Ana Hashem hatzlikha na — Please, Hashem, provide success!” because the fundamental problem was that he needed more success in his business.
As they were debating, the Chiddushei haRim’s grandson, Yehudah Aryeh Leib — the future Sefas Emes, passed by. (The Chiddushei haRim raised his orphaned grandson and successor.) The boy interrupted. “Neither of you understand. The rebbe meant ‘Ana Hashem ki ani avdekha – Please Hashem, because I am Your servant’!”
אָֽנָּ֣ה ה֮׳ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֪י עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ אֲֽנִי־עַ֭בְדְּךָ בֶּן־אֲמָתֶ֑ךָ פִּ֝תַּ֗חְתָּ לְמוֹסֵרָֽי׃
Please, Hashem, because I am your servant,
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant;
You have opened my bonds.– Tehillim 116:16 (and Hallel)
Rav Hirsch understands the root of “עבד” as an intensive form of “אבד”, just as the ayin is pronounced (by traditions that pronounce it at all) as a voiced version of the sound of an alef. “לאבד” is to lose, “לעבד” is for one’s will to be lost to that of another, to do what they desire and the servant’s will remains submerged.
But the term for “maidservant” is from a different root, she is an “אמה”. When the Torah describes Pharaoh’s daughter reaching out to save Moshe from the Nile, the Author writes, “… she saw the ark among the reeds, and sent her ammah to fetch it.” The normal reading is that she sent a handmaiden. But an ammah is also forearm (which is why it’s also a cubit, the length of a forearm). And so the gemara (Sotah 12b) records a dispute whether indeed a maidservant was sent or that Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm (ammah) stretched many ammos as she reached out to get the baby. (Perhaps the dispute being whether the essence of the story was her refusal to rely on someone else coming by, including a miracle, or whether it’s about our duty to run to the aid of others and let Hashem worry about whether we succeed.)
We see from this gemara that an ammah is a servant who is an extension of her mistress’s will. (I would contrast to shifchah, another term for a maidservant, but it’s both out of scope and I have no ideas.)
So, in this verse of Hallel we are describing ourselves as servants in terms of ignoring our own desires in favor of Hashem’s, but as children of servants whose own desires are an extension of Hashem’s Will.
Perhaps this is also the difference between the morning berakhos. Men say “shelo asani ishah — Who did not make me a woman” in gratitude for being obligated in more mitzvos than women. Women too can perform nearly all of these mitzvos voluntarily — as an amah whose own desire coincides with the mitzvah. But a man is thankful to be an eved, commanded to act despite our own desires.
Instead of that berakhah, the geonim instituted that women say “she’asani kiRtzono — Who made me according to His Will.” Because the typical woman (and who is ever really fully typical?) is more “according to His Will”, an ammah.
But it is submission to duty despite my own Will and my own desire that does the most to hone my soul. To perform a mitzvah I feel already deepens that feeling, but to perform one I don’t feel yet has the power to create an inculcate it. And so we conclude the pasuq, “pitachta lemoseirai — you opened my bonds”. David haMelekh, “David avdi — David My servant” as Hashem calls him (Tehillim 89:21), thanks G-d for being freed from his bonds. Being an eved itself brings one to becoming a “ben amasekha“.
Which brings us back to the opening.
Rabbi Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi advises (Avos 2:4):
הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו. בטל רצונך מפני רצונו, כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.
He would say:
- Make His Will like your will,
so that He will do your will like His Will.
- Annul your will before His Will,
so that He would annul the will of others before your will.
To annul my will before Hashem’s is to become His eved. To make Retzono, His Will, into mine would be to make the leap from eved to ben amasekha. And at that point, when our retzonos are one, is when Rabbi Gamliel assures us that Hashem will do our mutual will. And so, this is King David’s justification when he asks, “Please Hashem!”