Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Sense Of The Majesty Of The King (Rosh HaShanah 5768)

God and God of our ancestors: rule over the entire world, all of it, in Your glory and be elevated over all the earth in You majesty. (Amidah, Rosh HaShanah)

It is well-know that the central them of the whole Rosh Hashanah prayer service is the sovereignty of God. Recognising God as ruler of all history and experience is described by the Talmud and commentators as the primary objective of the day. The shofar service may be seen in the same light as a coronation ceremony for God: sounding the trumpets to announce the arrival of the King.

The lines above introduce the final paragraph of the section of the Amidah dealing with this theme, and seem to contain a redundancy. Why the apparent repetition of ‘entire’ and ‘all‘? The commentators see in this a profound idea: the difference between quality and quantity in our perception of the Divine:

The intention of the apparently redundant repetition in ‘rule over the entire world, all of it’ actually refers to two aspects of the sovereignty of heaven: in quantity and quality. The phrase ‘rule over the whole world’ refers to quantity –the dominion of God should extend over the entire creation and be evident to all. The phrase ‘all of it, in Your glory’ refers to quality – the hope that the entire creation and every tiny part of it will be filled with the glory of God. Only that will be complete Divine rule. (Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, commentary to Amidah)

This is a neat answer to the textual problem – it is a prayer for God’s majesty to pervade everything and in every way. It seems quite theoretical, though, so the prayer continues by expressing the concept in more practical detail:

Everything created shall know that You created it, everything formed shall understand that You formed it, and everything with a breath in its mouth shall declare that the Lord God of Israel is King and His kingdom extends over everything.

The awareness of God’s sovereignty is to be translated into understanding of its consequences and eventually into a declaration of its reality. Again, Rabbi Friedlander:

It is insufficient for them to simply recognise God’s sovereignty…. Their recognition of the sovereignty of God must come to expression through the Jewish people who utilise the creation to perform His will.

This quite startling – the declaration that God is King both in quantity and quality is achieved through action. This is always the Jewish way – thought and theology are only a prelude to action: behaving in a way that expresses the concepts of Judaism. Real, meaningful religious life is to be expressed not merely by thought but by action, for only through action do we change ourselves and improve the world.

In this context, we should see the shofar (and the whole Rosh HaShanah experience) as a clarion not just to awareness, but to action. What we will be doing in the year ahead to make God’s reality more tangible? Will we be more engaged in social projects, religious development and communal activity? Will we see events in the news, especially those involving the Jewish people and Israel, as opportunities to see the Divine? If Rosh HaShanah can help us achieve these objectives even in small measure, it will have been two days well spent.

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