Many well-known Jewish songs are based on words from the Bible. While a vast majority of them are based on Tehillim (Psalms) one of the most famous is almost a direct quote from Genesis: Od Avinu Chai, “Our Father Still Lives.” In this song, however, an inferred meaning of the words is utilized, rather than the actual meaning in the Torah.
“Ha’od avi chai?” “Is my father yet alive?” (Genesis 45:3) is the question asked by Joseph to his brothers after he reveals his identity. In fact, other than saying”I am Joseph,” these were the first words that Joseph spoke to his brothers after revealing his identity. Twenty-two years earlier, he had been separated from his father when his brothers sold him into slavery.
When the singer/composer Shlomo Carlebach attached a modified version of this verse to the phrase: Am Yisrael Chai, “The Nation of Israel Lives,” the understanding of “avi,” my father, changed from a reference to Jacob to a reference to God: “The nation of Israel lives! Our Father still lives!” The use of Avinu to refer to God as the Father of the Children of Israel is well-known from the prayer Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our God”).
The combined phrases create a powerful image of the essence of the Jewish nation. The Torah refers to the Jewish people as “kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) whose role it is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Nations have come and gone, negating the “power” of their gods (Babylon, Greece, Rome) but the Jewish people’s belief in God has remained steadfast. Today, rather than being challenged by people who believe in different gods, the Jewish people struggle against a lack of belief in God. Yet the very existence of the nation of Israel for over 3,300 years is, in truth, testimony to God’s might. And so: Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai!
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