Torah Reading for Week of September 13-19, 2020
“Rosh Hashanah and the Kingship of G-d”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Many people, including myself occasionally, stumble over one of Rosh Hashanah’s central ideas: That G-d is King. Our liturgy presents this as an annual coronation ceremony, when we acclaim G-d’s kingship and, Kabbalistic ally, even “crown” G-d.
But the notion of kingship does not sit well with Americans. After all, we overthrew kingship and replaced it with democracy. Kings seem obsolete. At their worst, they are tyrannical despots; at best, figureheads symbolizing a world long gone.
Even our biblical tradition is ambivalent about kings. When the people asked for a king like the other nations, the prophet Shmuel was unhappy. G-d agreed to their request, but clearly saw it as an error: “They have rejected Me from being king over them… just as in all their deeds from the day I brought them out of Egypt till today, they have forsaken Me” (1 Samuel 8.7-8). Shmuel, following G-d’s command, warned them of future tyranny, but they did not listen and insisted on a king.
The first two kings were chosen by G-d and anointed by Shmuel, as had been done with the judges who led the tribal confederation. However, once the kingship was inherited, the unity of the people did not last long. After the death of Solomon, David’s son, human rivalry split the kingdom and, as the prophetic books tell us, many of the kings did not follow “in the footsteps of David.” Eventually the exalted kingship in Israel disappeared and was relegated to a future promise.
But the institution was always under a question mark: Why did you reject G-d as your king? For in that case, we have a very different story.
Israelite kingship was established on thoroughly human grounds – explicitly, in rivalry with other nations. Human kingship signifies and embodies inequality and competition, and thus nourishes the ego. Shmuel’s warnings to the people emphasize that the king will be rapacious: “He will take your sons . . . your daughters. . . your fields . . your flocks” to serve the needs of himself and his captains (1 Samuel 8:11-17). While one might have thought that kingship would bring greater security and continuity than G-d’s choosing a prophet/judge; while it might seem that a stronger figure would bring greater protection, the opposite would be the case. The individual would be forced to serve the state and all his possessions, even his own closest and dearest family, would be appropriated.
With G-d as king, there is no possibility of rivalry at all. Indeed, G-d’s kingship establishes universal equality. “Every knee will bow. . . every tongue will acclaim.” The midrash even portrays all the animals recognizing G-d’s kingship, with even the great “kings” of jungle and steppe becoming modest. Who can claim any rights over anyone else if each is equally a servant of G-d? G-d can also represent perfect justice and equity, something no human king can ever attain. There is no coercion; G-d works by teaching – by the giving of Torah. And, since G-d needs nothing, there is no taking – G-d is beneficent.
These qualities are actually represented by the letters of the word “MeLeCh,” “king.” Mem traditionally represents mayim, water, which is the great equalizer because it flows everywhere and finds an even level. Lamed represents limmud, learning, and it extends to the heights and depths – lamed being the only letter that goes both above and below the line in Hebrew print. And chaf means the palm of the hand, representing beneficence, as in “You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (Ps 145).
There is an issue here, however. If G-d is universal king, what business do we have saying “Malkeinu,” “our king”? It sounds a bit presumptuous. What claim do we have on a G-d of perfect justice? None, in terms of favoring us so as to overlook our faults. We, like everyone else, have the responsibility to examine our lives and correct ourselves.
Our appeal, when we say Malkeinu, is to a historic relationship, not an exclusive one. In the liturgy this is Zichronot, remembrances. We can say “our king” because our ancestors affirmed this relationship and sustained it. Our merit is that we remember, and establish this Yom HaZicharon, Day of Remembrance, every year, blowing the shofar to announce and proclaim. It speaks well of us when we do not turn away from this awesome task – despite a thousand excuses and the “thousand ills that flesh is heir to.”
In the end, our resistance to “G-d the King” is a resistance to the demand for return to our basic humanness, with modesty and humility, simplicity and equality as self-evident and universal virtues. Democracy has its statement: “…all men are created equal,” but G-d’s kingship goes even further, proclaiming the uniqueness of every being on the planet.
Together, let us enjoy the ceremony, and rejoice in the new potential of this year.