Prostrating before the King of King of Kings
There is a three-word phrase in our formal prayers that conveys the essence of Judaism.
Being such a powerful phrase, it features appropriately in every formal prayer service, as well as in the highpoint of the prayers of the high holidays.
The phrase forms part of the Aleinu prayer, composed by Joshua ben Nun upon entering the holy land. In the Aleinu prayer, we declare our indebtedness to G-d for having given us a unique relationship with Him, “and we bow, prostrate, and express our appreciation before Melech Malchei haMelachim, the Holy One, blessed be He”.
The phrase “Melech Malchai haMelachim”, which means “The King of King of Kings” contains the key to understanding what being Jewish is all about.
Who are these three sets of kings?
The first king is obvious. It’s G-d. G-d is the king of the universe – Melech haOlam as we refer to Him in all our formal blessings. The world is G-d’s. He has the power. He calls the shots. He is its king.
The second reference to kings must refer to a group of people who also have power, who also call the shots. But if G-d is king, how can that be? The answer must be that G-d is a very special king – a king that chooses to share his kingship and confer his royal power on others, empowering them to be rulers in their own right. G-d does call the shots. It’s just that one of the shots He calls is to call on people to call the shots too.
And the third reference to kings? Who else could possibly be king other than G-d and His human co-royal partners? The third set of kings must refer to people who are unable to see themselves as being crowned by G-d, but they are willing to be crowned by people. And so it becomes the responsibility of G-d’s royal partners to take a feather from G-d’s crown and use their own crowns to empower those people and coronate them as kings as well.
This is what it means to be Jewish. The Jew recognises that G-d is king of the world. In addition, he or she recognises that G-d conferred His royal powers on a people to be royal too – “a kingdom of priests”. And ultimately, it’s the responsibility of His Jewish royal priests to confer their royal powers onto others, to empower and elevate them to their own personal kingdoms, to play their own part in taking care of the world.
Melech Malchei haMelachim – the King of Kings of Kings. Quite possibly the most profound three Jewish words of all. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a single official translation that translates them accurately. The message seems to have been lost in translation.
Our task over the high holidays in particular, and at every formal prayer service in general, is to correctly translate these three words, not only into English, but into our lives as well, and thereby accomplish our majestic mission as Jews.
Learning to fall teaches us to fly
“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”
Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.
This Rashi is problematic:
Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?
Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.
But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?
Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.
One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.
Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!
Seeing the big, beautiful picture
This week’s fundraising campaign for Community Security Organisation Medical in Cape Town and Hatzolah in Johannesburg beautifully replaces our obsession with daily infection statistics, hospital occupancies, and rates of transmission with awareness of (and gratitude for) the number of lives saved, families cared for, and thousands vaccinated in protection against the virus.
However, once you’ve made your generous contribution, that nagging feeling comes back: how many deaths in our community this year? What are the global and local statistics of antisemitism and crime? How bad is emigration from South Africa? Are there any young people excited about future – or even present – Jewish life in South Africa?
How are the numbers?
Well, it depends on what you’re counting.
The short-term vision created by the numbers gives us valuable data that should inform our long-term planning and community development strategies to ensure that we mitigate against the possible consequences of those realities, and more critically, reverse those trends.
Built into our spiritual and collective national DNA however, is the ability to see, act upon, and live with the vision of a far greater picture.
What’s that vision?
“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.” This is the message of the Shabbos before (and that blesses the week of) Rosh Hashanah.
Close to 1 000 years ago, Rashi unpacked for us in this verse a powerful message that speaks to us today, not only as a legacy from our ancestors three millennia ago, and more than just by virtue of our souls’ presence there. No. It’s way beyond that.
Today, in September 2021, as you read this Torah article in the SA Jewish Report, you are standing, joined by the hundreds of millions of Jews in each and every generation before, the hundreds of thousands of our brethren who lived in South Africa, as well as every generation that’s yet to materialise – “before Hashem your G-d”.
“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.”
When we live a life aligned to the infinite wisdom of Torah, the atomic power of each mitzvah, and the unconditional unity of our entire nation across the borders of times, space, and social class, then we can be confident in our future.
The numbers are great.
And we are assured of a sweet New Year with an abundance of revealed goodness for all of us.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if …?
An easy, albeit shallow, approach to understanding suffering in this world is to suggest that Hashem is just letting things happen, that it’s just nature taking its course without divine intervention. It helps to cope with inexplicable events without our faith being shaken. But is this really faith or actually heresy? Our belief includes the tenet of hashgacha pratit (micro-control from above). Even a leaf blowing in the wind is engineered as part of what Tevya called the vast eternal plan.
The final verses of the Torah portion this Shabbat contain the famous command of Zachor to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors when they left Egypt, and to obliterate his memory forever. Throughout our history, many have tried to destroy us. Yet none of our other foes are singled out the way Amalek is.
The Torah explains that the reason for the commandment is because Amalek “happened upon you on the way”. The attack against the children of Israel in the desert was real, treacherous, and threatened lives. But in that sense, Amalek has come and gone, and we have no certainty as to where to find his descendants (though we may have some suspicions).
The philosophy of Amalek, however, is still alive and well to this day. “He happened upon you,” is the dangerous and heretical approach that things just happen for no reason and without control from above. This is what the Torah enjoins us to uproot and totally eradicate.
As the Jewish year 5781 nears its end, we traditionally engage in reflection during the final month, Elul. This past year has brought more than its fair share of inexplicable events. Our faith has been tested to the maximum by repeated sadness and tragedy. It’s naïve to pretend that we can explain anything at all. Hashem’s ways are and remain unfathomable, particularly when dealing with enormity. However, we dare not suggest that there is no reason – there is one, we just don’t know what it is.
Maimonides, in his opening to the Laws of Fasts, suggests that if we say, “What has happened to us is the way of the world, and this trouble is merely happenstance,” it’s the way of cruelty, causing us to stick to our bad ways. Instead, we are obliged to use such events as a trigger for repentance and change.
What a trigger year we’ve had. As the year draws to a close, Hashem, send us a 5782 filled with blessing, healing, and prosperity.
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