Last week we discussed the first half of the Aleinu prayer, amongst the best-known prayers of our liturgical canon. The major point of this opening paragraph is the unique nature of the Jewish people. We simultaneously praise the Jewish discovery of the One True God and dismiss the non-Jewish worship of HEVEL and REIK, ‘vanity’ and ‘emptiness’. This daily declaration, based on the MALCHIYUT section of Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, is generally viewed as preparation for leaving the confines of shul and davening, to emerge and encounter the brutal world outside. Then we begin the second paragraph which proclaims that we can’t wait for the time when the rest of the world will join. We jump very quickly from ethnocentric to universal.
We actually begin this turn around by stating ‘therefore we place our hope in You’. How is this a ‘therefore’ or logical next step situation. Well, because the ‘Author of Creation’ always had desired the loyalty of the whole world. God gave Adam, Noach and the generation of the Tower of Babel the option to accept ethical monotheism and the Torah. It’s only when the world turned to idolatry three times that God went for Plan B: Give the Torah to one people who will preserve it until the rest of the world is ready to opt in.
We call this expectation a TIKVA or ‘hope’. However, Reb David Zvi Hoffman (1835-1921) explained in a famous lecture from 1895 that TIKVA best translates as ‘to be strong’, and in our case means ‘to be strong in the expectation of the coming of God’s salvation’. This implies not just the expectation but the assured knowledge of the expected outcome, as outlined in Yeshayahu (chapter 2) and Zecharia (chapter 14).
We fully expect to ‘quickly see the grandeur (TIFERET) of God’s power and strength (OZ). What makes this ‘power’ so ‘glorious’ is that, unlike human conquerors, God won’t destroy the other team, but make them members of our team. God will not destroy the sinners and idolators but remove idols and abominations from the world, as in Psalms 104:35 where many commentaries translate the verse, ‘May sins disappear from the earth, and evil be no more’. There’s it’s homiletic; here it’s P’SHAT (literal).
Now we encounter my favorite phrase in all of our prayers: Then the world will be perfected (‘fixed’, L’TAKEN) under the sovereignty of the Almighty (SHADAI). Rav Hoffman in that famous lecture explained that TIKUN means to ‘straighten the warped’, and SHADAI is best translated as ‘Provider’. God provides all that is needed to make this world paradise, but we must do our part.
In the next couple of lines, we express our expectation that all ‘children of the flesh’ will accept God’s hegemony over our realm. This will, first of all, remove all ‘evil of the land’. This will be accomplished through a remarkable education program which begins with recognizing (YAKIRU) the One True God, but continues with intimate knowledge (V’YEDI’U) of God and the Divine largesse for our realm.
As Rav Hoffman expressed it:
Before You Lord, our God- will all render their YAKAR (value and worth)-The recognition of the one true God will bring about the reality that everything of worth in our deeds as well as our wealth will be dedicated to God. It will recreate the single mindedness of the Generation of the Tower, but the focus won’t be ourselves and our handicraft, but God. All egotism will depart; altruism will reign.
At this time, all humanity will ‘bend their knee’ and every tongue swear ‘before You, O Lord, our God’. The ultimate goal is God’s rule accomplished through total, voluntary acceptance. This vision is, of course, presented in the famous concluding verse: And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day there shall be one Lord, and His Name shall be one (Zecharia 14:9). Zecharia envisions the true Messianic vision of universal recognition of that which Jews declare twice daily: Hear, O Yisrael, the Lord our God is one God (Devarim 6:4).
Accepting the yoke of heaven will be universal. It’s significant that when we close our eyes while reciting SHMA, we are, at least for a moment, negating all existence outside of God. At that moment we readily accept the yoke, burden, responsibility of God’s rule. That will be the norm in this future age. All will accept responsibility, not just for reward and payment, but as a sincere acceptance of God as our Sovereign.
This whole development of universal monotheism and worship of God is, of course, our fervent hope and expectation every day of our lives and is an appropriate way to end our synagogue services and prepare us to emerge into the wide, and often cruel, world outside the walls of our sanctuary. But this idea is also relevant as we commemorate Chanuka, because that war against Hellenism was a Kulturkampf (war of civilizations) as a well as a physical battle.
The essence of Greek culture was nostalgia, a sense that the best was and never will be again. I remember the movie Zorba the Greek from my youth (1960), in which a woman of ill repute tells a tourist, ‘No society ever reached the heights that were attained by ancient Greece! It was the cradle of culture. It was a happy country.’ But never again. Even the ancient Greeks thought that the best had already happened. Already in days of Socrates and Sophocles (4th century BCE), a play was written about Dionysus, god of theater, going to Hades to find great truths and plays. The future could never equal the past.
Not so Judaism. We revere the past, but don’t worship it. We look back nostalgically on past greatness, but ultimately expect that, ‘the glory of the future house will be greater than the glory of the former one, declares God, Lord of Hosts’ (Chagai 2:9). May both the House and the Glory arrive speedily in our days. Chanukah Sameach!!