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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
November 14, 2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

I have great patience for untying knots. From the time I was a kid, I could spend hours patiently finding ways to untangle and loosen string, thread or laces that had been knotted into seemingly permanent states. I was once told that it was a family trait – members of my mother's mother's family were famously knot untiers.

I have to acknowledge that there is something unsettlingly obsessive and compulsive about this fascination. But I know the right way to untie a knot is to patiently work away at the twists and turns of the strong, gently urging it out of its grip.

This skill came in very handy twenty-some years ago when Jennie (who seemed to have inherited my fascination with knots) unfurled all of Ann's carefully collected Israeli dance music cassette tapes. As a toddler, she discovered the box filled with them and used her tiny fingers to pull out miles of brown magnetic tape and leave it in a tangled heap on the floor. I am proud to say that after hours of patient obsession and compulsion, every tape was rescued and whole.

And then I met Jerry Salkin, of blessed memory, who owned a children's shoe store and therefore had profession experience with knotted laces. His method of untying a knot was very different – he grabbed one loose end of the offending mess and yanked it hard, over and over again until the knot gave way. I admit to having been stunned at the raw power and simplicity.

"Matir" comes from a root meaning "to loosen." It is just as often used to refer to the act of unbinding a knot as it is to the act of granting permission to do something you might have considered impermissible. A "heter" is a legal permission. Both of the meanings seem to have to do with creating some sort of release.

After describing God's attributes as including upholding the falling and cure the ill, both feats of immediate strength and prowess, it often seemed to me to be inconsistent to imagine God absorbed with the long process of persuading a knot to relax its grip. But having witnessed Jerry's technique, I came to understand that untying can be a very powerful and almost instantaneous accomplishment.

And certainly, the liberation that comes with granting permission where none existed is a manifestation of accessible power.

But just what does God untie; what does God permit? That's for next time…

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