Kingship and Creation on Rosh Hashanah

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September 1, 2007
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Ellen Bernstein

The language of Kingship is not fashionable today; actually, it hasn’t been for years. Many people read “King” in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy and think “man” and “hierarchy” and either tune out, walk out, or look for some other way to engage in the service. But even before the most recent critique of Kingship, a whole generation of (Protestant) Bible scholars demeaned the Temple Priests and the idea of Kingship in favor of what they understood as the more democratic voice of the Bible — the Prophets.

But as usual with liturgical and poetic language, we need to dig beneath the surface and tap into our imaginations to discover how the idea of Kingship, mastery, and dominion can be meaningful to us. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah because Kingship is a primary theme of the High Holiday liturgy.

The idealized King is majestic, resplendent, luminous, radiant. He is the embodiment of strength, wisdom, and discernment: righteous in judicial matters, merciful and kind to the poor.

The King’s magisterial presence evokes a state of awe, dignity, and grandeur. The words “ruler” and “sovereign,” which many people prefer, are more disembodied and abstract and do not capture the sense of awe, fear and glory (kavod) that are essential elements of the ritual of this particular holiday. On Rosh Hashanah, it is as if we enter into the King’s holy court to meet with Him one on one to review the trajectory of our lives and to determine how well we have stayed on course with our intended mission. Guided by His benevolence on the one hand, and His clear and exacting judgment on the other, we find our way back to a life of merit and honor.

Kingship has another resonance on Rosh Hashanah — its intimate link to creation. The King is first and foremost Master of the Universe, the One who wrests creation into being, the Victorious Right-Armed One who overcame the watery chaos, and continues to maintain order in the world — the One to insure creation’s very existence.

But God’s kingship and creation’s existence have always been imperiled and continue to be precarious. Chaos/evil threatens to upset the King and undo the workings of Creation at every moment. Chaos enters the system, in part, through humanity’s injustices, our mindlessness, our evil, our obliviousness to the consequences of our acts. Today the metaphor of God as Supreme King, struggling to keep the watery chaos at bay, is particularly poignant as we reflect on the chaotic waters and weather associated with climate change and all the destruction, pain, and suffering that our ecosystems and peoples around the earth must endure because of our vanity.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day the rabbis called harat olam, the birthday of Creation, we are given the opportunity to re-enthrone the King and give creation a chance to reestablish itself. Because only when the King sits securely on the throne will order and peace reign and the glory of God fill the earth.

So how do we help reestablish God’s kingship? On Rosh Hashanah, we set our intention for the year. We re-enthrone the King by reciting the “Kedusha,” Holy, Holy, Holy, the whole Earth is full of His Glory, acknowledging that the entire earth is really God’s Temple and it is our job to protect it. We re-enthrone God as King as we submit to the highest values of truth, compassion, and stewardship. We re-enthrone God as King as we drop to our knees during the Aleinu prayer as an expression of our humility and a declaration of our service to the One. Ultimately re-enthroning the King means mastering and subduing our own egos and coming to terms with the arrogance of humanism.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy does not just address humanity; all of creation is charged to re-enthrone the King: The culminating prayer of the Malchuyot/Kingship liturgy (and the UvChen prayers inserted in the Amidah) bids us and all of creation to acknowledge and praise the Master of All, the Molder of Creation.

All the earth’s inhabitants will know You.
. . . let everything that has been molded understand that you are its Molder and let everything with a life’s breath in its nostrils proclaim, Hashem the God of Israel is King and his Kingship rules over everything.

The corollary to praising God and goodness is holding fast to righteousness in the face of the constant and subtle threats, the vanities and idols that vie for our attention and seek to topple the King, and ultimately creation. As the Aleinu prayer (which originates in the Kingship section of the Rosh Hashanah service) tells us, we have two choices — submit to God and righteousness or to hevel, to vanity, idols, and meaninglessness.

Creation then is not something to be taken for granted. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, water and land, the perfection of each creature adapted to its unique niche — all this is a gift from a benevolent and philanthropic King.

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Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah, the first national Jewish environmental organization, in 1988. She is author of The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology and other works on Judaism and Ecology. She is currently developing a new program in Judaism and Ecology at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. She can be reached at ebernstein@hebrewcollege.edu.

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