The Chutzpah of calling God our King

We are now in the period we call the Ten Days of Repentence.  From Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, we modify our prayers, even on regular days, to emphasize that God is not just our God, not just our Judge, but that He is our King.  The musaf prayer on Rosh Hashana has three special sections included in it, the first of which is Malchuyot, or Kingships, in which we read verses from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, all of which talk about God in His role as our King.

A lot of people look at this as an almost intimidating thing. We also call Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur “Days of Awe”, where Awe, in Hebrew, comes from the same root at the word meaning “fear”.  According to this understanding, we emphasize that God is our King to make it clear that He is the Boss.

I don’t believe this is the meaning of God being our King.  But in order to explain what it does mean, we need first to understand the difference between a King and a Ruler.  In Hebrew, between a Melech and a Moshel.  A Moshel is anyone who rules over others.  When the Roman Empire ruled over Israel, they were rulers.  A ruler doesn’t need the consent of the governed.  A ruler doesn’t even have to be of the same nationality as the governed.  Throughout British history, there were many times that the kings of England didn’t even speak English.  They weren’t kings in the Jewish sense; they were rulers.

A Melech is an organic leader.  He is someone who leads from within.  Who is, so to speak, the embodiment of his people.  This is the kind of thing we mean when we speak of a King in Judaism.  A Jewish King is not someone from the outside.  He is part of us.  In a very important way, he is us.  He is just as bound by the laws of the Torah as any other Jew.  More so, in some ways.  He rises out of the people and stands as the symbol of his people.

So now, think about what it means when we say God is our King.  It is not so much a statement about God as it is one about ourselves.  The sheer hubris of calling God our King is almost overwhelming.  Because for God to be our King, we ourselves have to be on an extremely high level, spiritually speaking.  And it is to this level that we aspire during these Days of Awe.

In Pirkei Avot 2:4, Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, says: “Do His will as though it were your will, so that He will do your will as though it were His will.  Nullify your will before His will, so that He will nullify the wills of others before Your will.”  Complicated as it sounds, the idea is fairly simple.  To the extent that we mold ourselves in God’s image, to the extent that we adjust our own values so that we want to do the things God tells us to do, we become part of God’s plan for the world.  And to that extent, God becomes, so to speak, the embodiment of His people.

The modifications we make to our prayers during these ten days are not maintained during the rest of the year.  Not because God is any less Kingly during the rest of the year, but because it is specifically during these days that we make the added effort to raise ourselves up to the level of being worthy of having God as our King.

Have a Healthy and Happy New Year.

About the Author
Lisa Liel lives in Karmiel with her family. She works as a programmer/developer, reads a lot, watches too much TV, does research in Bronze/Iron Age archaeology of the Middle East, and argues a lot on Facebook.