At this time of year, when we hear “The King,” instead of thinking about Elvis, as Jews we’re supposed to think about God. Kingship is the central image and metaphor for God during our Days of Awe. We call out to HaMelech, The King, and to Avinu Malkeinu – our Father, our King – to answer us, to hear our prayer, and to be present with us as we do the sacred and challenging work of teshuvah, returning our actions in alignment with our values.
But I’ll confess: I have never related easily to kingship or royalty language for God. Personally, I’m far more likely to use terms like “Holy One” or “Source of Life,” or maybe “Ruler,” than I am to call God “King.”
As a rabbi, that theological struggle grew to become a minor professional hazard each year. After all, I lead these prayers. How could I not find some meaning in this metaphor that captivated our ancestors’ minds for centuries? Just about every single blessing uses the phrase Melech ha’Olam, King of the World, and during our Days of Awe, the most sacred season of our year, that king language becomes even more prominent!
Part of the difficulty I find with “King” language for God relates to the gendered nature of that particular image. The Reform movement has long used the more gender-neutral phrases “Ruler of the world” or “Sovereign of the universe,” for “Melech haolam” to avoid gendering the Divine. This works well for me, as I prefer to avoid terms that make God seem too human.
Another part of my discomfort stems from the other parts of the term that seem too human. “Kings” and royalty call to mind specific rulers; power and politics; wealth and war; even ego, tyranny or oppression. Those aren’t exactly the most comforting ways to think about God. What’s more, they also describe a God who has the power to act directly in the world; a lightning-bolt kind of God, whereas I tend to ascribe to Process Theology, choosing to see God as a Force for Goodness in the world, rather than a Divine Monarch Who acts upon the Kingdom according to their every whim.
Yet throughout these past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me to find new layers of meaning in this ancient metaphor of God as King.
From the lack of control of the virus itself, to political and social turmoil domestically and abroad, to the increasingly dire situation that plagues the earth itself in the form of climate change, there has been no lack of reminders over the past 18 months that we humans do not reign in this world. We are not the kings and queens or the sovereign rulers of this universe. Forces beyond our control exist. They always have and always will.
This was true long before the coronavirus, of course, be it natural disasters, seasonal flux or even just a fender bender. Yet many of us had familiar routines that created a sense of certainty and comfort. We could often create and depend on a feeling of being in control; of being sovereign over our lives.
So it’s been a rough wake-up call to be reminded so harshly that there does indeed exist a Living, Sovereign Force of Creation, before Whom we can stand in gratitude, and also in awe – as we face our lack of control.
Yet just as we acknowledge the ways that we are powerless and small, we can commit to our process of teshuvah. Our process of repentance and return helps us acknowledge our limitations, while remaining audacious enough to believe that our actions matter. We honor that Sovereign of the Universe by striving to be sovereign of ourselves and our choices.
This year, as we hear the Shofar call, let it remind us: we are not the rulers of the world. Let us try to be present with that Power of the Universe, ruling in space and time, amidst our uncertainties and worries, leaning into our sense of yirah – awe and reverence mixed with a healthy dose of fear. But let the Shofar also wake us up, every day, with the possibility to take the reins in our lives by living with the hope and determination that our choices make a difference.
Rabbi Max Chaiken leads Temple Emanuel of Andover.