This is the "From the Bimah" column I wrote for the Jewish Reporter's September 2013 issue before the High Holy Days.
In the Jewish spiritual vocabulary, the word “king” is one of the most difficult. All the important spiritual words are difficult – but melech, “king”, is particularly challenging.
Yet some of the most memorable prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are built around this image. The picture of God, seated on a throne, reading the book that details our lives in the past year. The plantive melody of Avninu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King.”
For many of us, “king” is an impenetrable metaphor. For some, it's simply a relic of a time long past and has no meaning. For some it's an issue of patriarchy and power, out of place in an era of equality.
So, much of the time we change the translation of melech in our prayers. To get beyond gender, we say “Sovereign” or “Ruler”, though these solve only one issue. My congregants have heard me change the meaning of the traditional blessing words Melech Ha-olam. Instead of “King of the universe,” I frequently say that God is “Woven through all time and space.”
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, however, I believe there is something to be said for keeping the metaphor of monarchy in a central place. It's not the only spiritual focus I want to have, to be sure. But the idea of melech, in perspective, can challenge us in unique ways.
We should, after all, be uncomfortable on the High Holy Days. We say that our lives are at stake, that our choices have consequences for our destiny. Standing before a Presence so much more powerful than any of us is humbling. The shofar, in its origins, brought to mind the fanfare of an approaching king. We need to feel humble, to dislodge our egos so we can face our need to change.
We should realize just how much power has to be summoned into our world to meet the forces of selfishness, violence, and superficiality. I love the words of the Shalom Rav prayer, which ask God to bring us peace “for You are the King, Lord over all peace.” I want a God whose power is necessary not to make us small, but to bring us peace. In a world where our own efforts often fall short, I want to serve the God whose power is equal to those that pull apart peace, justice, and compassion.
We need moments when we bow our heads, and acknowledge that we do not hold in ourselves, even collectively, all the wisdom we need, all the power we need.
The traditional Jewish idea of God as melech is itself far more than a dominating authority. Many early midrashim (Talmudic-era probes of the Torah) teach that God had to earn God's throne from us, so to speak. It was by liberating us from Pharaoh, caring for us in the wilderness, and teaching us the Torah that God won our ancestors' loyalty. Without that, God would not in any sense be “king.”
In fact, you see this reflected in the High Holy Day prayers. In one poem, God is the all-seeing judge – and at the same time, the advocate for every Jew in the same court. In the most famous “king” image of the Days of Awe, God is the King who takes time to read over every single person's story, and watch each of us one by one.
Do you know a human being who can do all of that? Is there any person or group with the capacity and power to be that attentive to each of us?
That is what God's “kingship” means to me. That's why part of my experience on the High Holy Days is to be in the presence of Ha-Melech.
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova U'metukah, a good and sweet New Year,