Monday, September 24, 2012

Holy, but still King

[This could be a derashah for Rosh haShanah or Yom Kippur for a Rabbi who was still seeking something…]

In the period of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we devote a great deal of liturgical space to the idea of coronating Gd, declaring Gd to be King. In the third blessing of the amidah we even add a special mention of Gd as King, hamelech hakadosh.

Last week, a relevant aspect of the amidah caught my eye: All year, we identify Gd as King in the first two blessings of the amidah. With the insertion of "haMelech (the King)" in the third blessing at this time of year, we complete the set.

But each King is different.

In the first blessing we speak of the Divine relationship with our patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. (Yes, I know that some Jews insert the matriarchs, but I stick with Exodus 3:15, in which Gd self-identifies as "the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak, and the Gd of Yaakov," and then says, "This is My Name eternally, and this is the way you shall mention Me from generation to generation. This is the "name" for Gd as Redeemer.) We speak of Gd as identifying with each of these human beings, and we describe Gd as a King who is "helper, redeemer and shield" for them. This is an intimate King.

In the second blessing we speak of Gd as all-powerful; the blessing itself is called gevurot, a blessing about Divine might. Gd brings life, wind, rain, aid, health, death and life. And we identify Gd as a King who "causes death, causes life, and causes redemption to sprout." This King is all-powerful, and therefore distant, but this King is also involved with our existence.

Those two Kings are the ones we know all year. Then, in the period from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur we add a third King – "hamelech hakadosh", the Holy King. Borrowing from Chanah's description of Gd as "holy" in Shemuel I 2:2, we identify Gd as remote, removed from this universe, and yet still, on some level, associated with us as our King.

I find it odd that we would add a remote King at this time of year; we normally view Gd as "closer" at this time of year, as seen in Rosh haShanah 18a, commenting on Yeshayah 55:6. Perhaps, though, this is when we need that reminder. All year long we need to emphasize Divine closeness, lest we forget His presence. At this time of year we have so many reminders of His closeness, and so we need to accentuate His distance.

Or perhaps we are making a proud, even defiant statement: Abarbanel (to Shemuel I 2:2) understood that Chanah's statement of a "holy Gd" was a rebuke to those who claim that Gd is distant and uninterested in human affairs. "Gd is at hand!" Chanah insisted, on the authority of her personal miracle.

Yes, Gd is holy and removed, but Gd is still the King who brings death and life, still the King who was close with His intimates. Do not speak to me of a King who is dispassionate and uninterested; I acknowledge the distance, but as Chanah continues, לו נתכנו עלילות, all is known to Him, measured by Him, and valuable to Him.

Yes, I think this could become a derashah. More to say here, but this will have to do for now.


  1. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits argued that for G-d, holy does mean close, although no one else really agrees.

  2. Nice. Too bad I didn't see this earlier. ;-)

    BTW, have you read Rav Shimon Staretlitz's summary essay at the end of Rav Drukman's edition of Orot Hateshuvah? I think you would really appreciate it.

  3. Daniel-
    In which book?

    R' Mordechai-
    Haven't seen it; is it available on-line?

  4. In the essay The Concept of Holiness, originally in Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology, reprinted in Essential Essays on Judaism (ed. David Hazony).