IT'S GOOD TO BE THE KING
Rabbi David Walk
Is it really good to be the king? Shakespeare said, 'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (Henry IV, Part 2, often misquoted as 'heavy lies the crown'). Of course Mel Brooks was joking when he used my title phrase in his 1981 film, History of the World: Part One, and was emphasizing the perks of royalty. Shakespeare, on the other hand, was being more reflective in his quote. Being the monarch requires a sense of responsibility. Even hereditary rulers require the consent of the governed, to some extent. Good sovereigns, who would like to maintain a long reign and dynasty, want to maintain a happy and satisfied populace. Again, though, as Mr. Brooks pointed out, sometimes the peasants are revolting. So, in the realm of political science, being the king is more responsibility than privilege. Sometimes the subjects do hold the upper hand. Just ask Rechovam the son of King Solomon, how ignoring the complaints of the populace worked out. How about in religion? Looking at God's role as monarch, is it good to be the king or is it 'uneasy lies the head'?
Really in Judaism the question is somewhat different. We don't ask too many questions about how God feels. The Holy One can take care of the Monarch of Monarchs, and doesn't need our consent. We want to know about how we should feel about God being our sovereign. Should this cause us great trepidation, or great joy and comfort, knowing that the Omnipotent One has our collective backs. Well, both. Remember the Jews demanded a king when they were threatened by the Philistines, and the prophet Samuel wasn't interested, but God forced his hand, and Saul was appointed and anointed. So, we see that often people want a king, but almost as often complain about the cost and sacrifice of having a monarch. Which is it with God?
The information that we require to resolve this conundrum, I believe, appears in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah. That massive prayer (our longest of the year) contains three themes: malchiot (verses about God as Monarch), zichronot (material about how God records everything that happens) and shofarot (about the shofar as harbinger of momentous events).
In the middle blessing, zichronot, which describes the NSA-like abilities of God, a close reading of the text brings us to a fascinating conclusion. We open this section by stating: Before You all the secrets of the ages stand unveiled…From the earliest days of human existence You endowed humans with the knowledge that all are accountable to You for their actions; and of old You revealed to the House of Israel that this day…was to be for us a Day of Judgment; for such is the statute unto Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob. And on this day the destiny of nations hangs in the balance: War or Peace, Famine or Plenty; and as for individuals, Life or Death. This is pretty scary stuff! We stand naked and revealed before the Divine Judge, who decides our fate. However, in the closing paragraph of this section the tone changes dramatically: Remember us for good with blessing, deliverance and compassion. Remember the covenant which You made with Abraham our father, and the loving pledge which You gave him on Moriah's height… Fulfill unto us, O Lord our God, Your Torah's promise, which was given through Moses Your servant, And I shall remember for them the covenant which I made with their ancestors. Here the tone is very different. We're sort of using this infallible memory as an accusation against God, and demanding payment on promises owed to us through our Matriarchs and Patriarchs.
When did our anxiety turn into poise, our fear into confidence? I'm not sure of the exact moment, but I have an idea about the process. We describe this procedure in Psalm 47 which we recite (seven times, no less) before the initial blowing of the shofar. Here's how the poem begins: The Lord Most High is fearsome, the ruler of all the earth. God has put every nation under our power, and He chose for us the land that was the pride of Jacob, His favorite (Psalm 47:3-5). There's the scary God, that we were talking about. This section of the work ends with the Hebrew word, selah. That word denotes an ending. It's always followed by a new thought, and here's the new idea: God (Elokim) arises with acknowledging cries (truah); the Lord (Tetragrammaton) to the sound of the shofar. Sing, O, sing to God; Sing, O, sing to our king…God reigns over all nations; God is seated on the Holy throne (verses 6, 7 and 9). The new idea is the arrival of the pleasant God, who makes us happy, inspires hope and causes our souls to sing.
What happened? Where did the tough Cop go, and when did the good Cop show up? It's really very simple. The scary God became the warm, fuzzy God when we blew the shofar. That's what the poem describes and that's behind the shift in mood that the musaf prayer describes. Oh, so it's really very easy! No, not really. We Jews don't believe in magic or simple fixes to complex problems. The blowing of the shofar is supposed to remind us that God is our King. It's when we acknowledge this reality that God rises from the throne of justice, and ascends the throne of Compassion and becomes good, glorious, magnificent God. This major change requires our serious commitment.
I'd like to think that this system works with governments, as well. When the populace is loyal and devoted to the government, the government is beneficent to the people. But there's no guarantee. Some rulers are just selfish stinkers. However, with God, it is guaranteed. When we acknowledge and accept God as our sovereign, the Lord is loving, forgiving and compassionate as our Parent our Monarch. So, in conclusion it's good to be our Divine King, but it's even better to serve our Divine Sovereign. Shana tova u'metuka!