What is the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word “King?”
Given recent events, I imagine that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III probably come to mind.
In the United States, the concept of royalty is not particularly relevant to our lives. Our nation was founded when we gained independence from a king. It is a matter of national pride that we have no royalty.
Monarchy is not a particularly common form of government these days. The British Crown, as a Constitutional Monarchy, is largely symbolic. There are just a handful of absolute monarchies left in the world, and I am not sure that any of them are in places that you or I would want to live.
And yet, “King” is one of the dominant symbols and the primary metaphor that we use to describe God on Rosh Hashanah.
Our High Holiday liturgy is filled with pageantry. All of the ark openings. The standing. The sitting. Much of the music we sing is meant to sound like a royal procession.
We shift the beginning of the morning service so that the first word is hamelekh, the King. What is the most iconic prayer of Rosh Hashanah? Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father our King. We even braid the Challah into a round loaf resembling a crown. Rosh Hashanah is a coronation, a crowning of the King of Kings on the New Year.
This is expressed nowhere better than in a glorious piyyut which we will sing in a little while. Here is a preview. It can be found on page 150 in the mahzor. In this particular melody, the last line of the poem serves as the congregational response. The words are v’yitnu l’kha keter m’lukhah – “And they will give You a crown of kingship.”
The prayer imagines a future in which all of humanity joins in glorious unity, rejecting all forms of idolatry and recognizing God as King. Let’s practice singing it right now. I’ll sing the leader’s part without using any words. All you have to do is repeat the exact melody that I sing, using the final line v’yitnu l’kha keter m’lukhah. After three lines, we’ll join together in the niggun, a wordless melody.
When we talk about a human King, what qualities come to mind?
Kings are not like us. They sit far away, upon an elevated throne. They have absolute power. The King is the law. The King is male.
What does it mean when we describe God as a King? This metaphor might work for some of us. Or, maybe we try not to think too hard about what “God is King” might imply. Or, maybe the idea of God as a King turns us off.
I personally have a difficult time with it. When teaching Avinu Malkeinu to our religious school students recently, I struggled with how to translate it and explain its meaning. I ended up using “Ruler,” which is not really the same thing. For the handout, I hedged by just writing Avinu Malkeinu in English,
What do we say in Avinu Malkeinu? “Our Father, Our King. Have mercy on us, answer us, for our deeds are insufficient; deal with us charitably and lovingly, and redeem us.”
We ask for compassion from a King who is far away. ‘We don’t deserve your mercy,’ we admit. There is no claim whatsoever that we can make. We are entirely in Your hands; we exist at Your whim. Maybe that is the appropriate way to understand our relationship with our Creator, but it does not feel very good.
Maimonides says that there are no words that can accurately define God. We can only say what God is not. All descriptions are metaphors which, if we took them literally, would make us guilty of idolatry. For the most part, our descriptions of God are really descriptions of the best qualities that we hope to see in ourselves: kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reliability, constancy, fairness, justice. We project on God those qualities to which we aspire…
…which brings us to another problem with Kings. They are, by and large, terrible. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that there may be a time in the future when they say “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me.” When the request comes a few centuries later, in the days of the Prophet Samuel, he agrees to help the Israelites, but tells them, “You can do it, but you’re not gonna like it.”
Here are some of the rules that Moses outlines for Kings: he can’t have too many horses, he can’t send people back to Egypt to get more horses. He can’t have too many wives. And further, the King can’t do whatever he wants. He must keep a copy of the Torah with him at all times, read it daily, and follow the commandments closely. And, he cannot set himself above his subjects. Basically, he does not get to do any of the fun stuff that Kings like to do. With all due respect to Mel Brooks, “It is not good to be the King.”
When the Israelites do establish a monarchy, it is essentially a disaster, with a few exceptional bright spots here and there. And let’s not even get started with the non-Israelite kings.
If human royalty is so terrible, why on earth is it the metaphor we use for God?
The Rabbis are aware that the nature of God’s Kingship is fundamentally different than an earthly King. The Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 11a) tells the story Onkelos bar Kelonimos. According to one legend, he was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. He converted to Judaism in the first century, CE, and wrote what came to be known as Targum Onkelos, the earliest Aramaic translation of the Bible.
News of Onkelos’ conversion spreads, and the Roman emperor sends a troop of soldiers to arrest him. As the soldiers approach, Onkelos starts reciting verses of Torah, as one does. He is very persuasive, and they convert.
The emperor sends in another troop of soldiers to arrest Onkelos. This time he instructs them: “Do not talk to him.”
They arrest Onkelos, and as they are walking along, he says to them: “I just have one thing I’d like to say. It is the job of the junior officer to hold the torch for the senior officer. The senior officer holds the torch for the Duke. The Duke holds the torch for the Governor. And the Governor holds the torch for the King. So,” he asks the soldiers. “Does the King hold the torch for the people?”
The soldiers, mesmerized by Onkelos, forget their orders and answer: “No. Of course not.”
Onkelos turns to them and says: “And yet, the Holy One holds a torch for the Jewish people.” Then he quotes Exodus: “The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21).
Hearing this brilliant exposition, the entire second troop of soldiers converts.
Word reaches the Emperor, who he is beside himself. As he sends out the third troop, he commands them: “Do not speak with him at all. Not a word!”
The soldiers follow their orders. They arrest Onkelos and start marching. As they are walking along, Onkelos sees a mezuzah on a doorpost. He puts his hand on it and looks over at the soldiers: “What is this?”
They look at one another, thinking of the Emperor’s order. But they are curious. So one of them shrugs his shoulders and quietly whispers for Onkelos to answer his question.
So Onkelos says: “The standard practice around the world is that the king sits inside his palace, while his servants stand guard at the gates, protecting him from any threats. But when it comes to the Holy One, it is the opposite.” He points to the mezuzah. “God’s servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes with their mezuzahs on their doors, while God stands guard over them.”
When the soldiers hear this, what can they do but convert on the spot?
The Emperor does not bother sending any more soldiers.
This story is all about contrasting the human King with the Divine King. Notice how the Roman Emperor remains inside his palace while his servants, the guards, are sent outside to supposedly protect his interests. Onkelos, who has chosen to be a servant of God, is protected by verses of Torah. Even when he is out on the road, the Divine King is with him to light his way and guard him from harm.
Although calling God “King” might seem like such a given, it might be surprising to learn that God is not a King in the Torah. None of the Patriarchs or Matriarchs relate to God in that way. Moses never instructs Pharaoh to submit before the King of Kings. When the Israelites build a place of worship, they construct a Tabernacle, not a palace.
The word melekh, King, referring to God, or its related verb, occurs just three, or possibly even only two times in the entire Torah, which creates a problem for our machzor.
The Musaf service contains three special sections called Malkhuyot – Kingship, Zikhronot – Remembrances, and Shofarot – Shofar blasts. Each of these sections are comprised of ten verses from the Hebrew Bible: three from Torah, three from Writings, three from Prophets, and a final verse from Torah. The verses conclude with a closing blessing, followed by shofar blasts.
The Talmud has no problem at all in associating Zikhronot – Remembrances – and Shofarot – Shofar blasts – to Rosh Hashanah, or in finding appropriate verses. But it really struggles to find four verses from the Torah for Malkhuyot. Most appear in poems. The first is from the Song of the Sea: Adonai yimlokh l’olam va’ed – “The Lord will reign for ever and ever.” The second is recited by Balaam, the non-Israelite Prophet, when he utters words of blessing upon the Israelites. We’ll come back to it. The third verse, from Deuteronomy, might actually be referring to Moses instead of God. The fourth verse is Shema Yisrael, which does not even have the word melekh. None of these four verses have anything to do with Rosh Hashanah.
Now back to our verse from Balaam. Summoned by the human King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites, Balaam instead offers words of blessing, including our verse:
No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel.
The Lord their God is with them, And the teruah of the King among them.Numbers 23:21
Ut’ruat melekh bo. Do you hear anything familiar? The teruah of the King among them. What is teruah? It means “blasting,” probably referring to a trumpet fanfare announcing the King’s entrance. It is one of the three notes sounded by the shofar. It is a word used to refer to our holiday – zikhron teruah – a remembrance of blasting.
So maybe we can make an indirect connection. If melekh has a connection to teruah, and teruah is associated with Rosh Hashanah, then by analogy melekh is connected to Rosh Hashanah. If A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Maybe.
Before we get too excited, let’s look again at teruah. Does it actually mean “blasting?”
Remember Onkelos? His Aramaic translation uses a curious word. It says ush’khinat malk’hon beineihon – “The Shechinah of the king is among them.” No blasting. Instead, it is the Shechinah, the indwelling of God’s Presence. Rather than triumphant horns, the image shifts to one of intimacy and comfort.
Perhaps this is what leads the commentator Rashbam to explain the verse in this way. The word Teruah is related to the word re’ut, which means “friendship.” On the inside of our wedding rings, Dana and I have the words Zeh dodi v’zeh re’i inscribed. “This is my beloved, this is my friend.”
Teruah therefore means friendship. ut’ruat melekh bo – “and the friendship of the king is among them.”
Turning to the opening words of the verse, Lo hibit aven b’ya’akov – Rashbam explains that God does not want to punish the children of Israel even when they sin. Literally, “God cannot see sin in Jacob.”
What kind of King is this? One who is in intimate relationship with the beloved, who deliberately overlooks sin, ignoring imperfections, who is blinded by love.
That is a very different image of a King. Instead of the majestic, male, distant Ruler seated upon a lofty throne, with trumpets blaring, this King is at our level, feminine perhaps, a loving companion who accepts us with all of our imperfections. In other words, nothing at all like a human king.
What kind of relationship do I want with my Creator? No question that there is a rather large power imbalance. But don’t I want to be seen and accepted by the universe, told that I matter?
While our High Holiday liturgy is filled with royal language and imagery, I struggle to relate to those metaphors. Maybe this other type of King, the loving companion, offers an alternative.
If it is true that God knows us better than we even know ourselves, then maybe what we want from God is to be a close friend, an intimate companion.
What do we need from our closest relationships? We need to be accepted for who we are and loved — no matter what.
We talk about the unconditional love of parents for their children. Unconditional means love without judgment, accepting our child for exactly who they are.
That is pretty difficult to achieve, because we actually judge our kids regularly. We hold them to the standards we set for ourselves – standards which we often fail to meet. We judge them by our own deficiencies.
And they feel judged by us, even when we are trying to accept them for who they are. Judgment interferes with acceptance and love.
As parents, isn’t it our jobs to try to set aside our judgment, to make sure our kids know that they are seen, accepted, and loved?
The same is true of any quality relationship with another person, whether a lover, a family member, or a friend.
A true friend is someone with whom I am safe to be vulnerable. Someone who, when I share my deepest secrets, my shame, will not judge me. A real friend will accept me in all my imperfections. With all of my self doubt.
We are asked each year to take account of our souls, to perform Cheshbon HaNefesh. This requires brutal honesty. And it is hard to be so open if I know that I am going to face judgment. But if I know that I am opening up to a loving companion…
This intimacy and companionship is what so many of are missing after the past two and a half years. It is starting to feel like we are getting back to normal. But we are still so divided, so quick to judge. We cannot expect God to be a loving companion in our midst unless we are also prepared to be that for each other.
The dominant depiction of God is as the King of the universe, sitting on His high and lofty throne, but perhaps what we really want is for God to be a companion in our midst, accepting and loving us for exactly who we are.
And perhaps that loving companion is also what we want, what we need from — and to be for — each other.