The most quoted verse in our liturgy appears in this week’s Torah reading. It’s the last verse in SHIRAT HAYAM, the Song of the Sea. It pretty much sums up the entirety of Jewish theology, and it goes like this: HASHEM YIMLOCH L’OLAM VA’ED, the Eternal will rule forever (Shmot 15:18). Simple, elegant, and says it all. So, as a regular davener I recite it nine times a day. That is in the Ashkenazic rite; S’fard and Eidot HaMizrach can add two more. So, what is our infatuation with this diminutive verse?
First of all, we exclaimed these words at, perhaps, the most dramatic moment in Jewish history. At lease, it was the high point of Cecil B. Demille’s film versions (1923 & 1956) of the events surrounding the Exodus. The declaration made sense, because God had given three reasons for the Ten Plagues: 1. By this you shall know that I am the Eternal (7:17), 2. that you may know that I am the Eternal in the midst of the land (8:18), 3. in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world (9:14). So, our declaration is the fulfillment of the educational lesson plan of the plagues.
The biggest problem for that way of understanding our verse is that superficially, at least, the verse is stated in the future tense. Why should that be? Shouldn’t the declaration be that God has already become the recognized Ruler of all? Well, the translation of Onkelos into Aramaic (KA’EM, ‘is established’) relates to this problem by rendering YIMLOCH as really expressing the present tense. The future tense in Hebrew can be used to express a present situation which extends far into the future, a continual process or action, especially in poetry like the Song of the Sea.
As Rabbeinu Bechaye avers:
The plain meaning of the text is that just as God had demonstrated His supremacy over all of mankind and the forces of nature at the time of the exodus by saving the deserving and punishing the guilty, may He continue to do so in each and every generation.
On the other hand, the Ohr Hachayim suggests that in reality God will only be called the Ruler of All at some future time. The miracles in Egypt were only the first step in a process which will go on for much of human history, until that era when, ‘And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name’ (Zecharia 14:9). Which is exactly how we end the Aleinu prayer multiple times every day, right after we again recite this verse, maybe they are connected to that future situation.
Also, in the context of Moshe’s Song, he’s just stated, ‘In Your strength You guide them to Your Holy Abode’ (N’VEH KADSHECHA, verse 13). This could easily be construed as the future Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim. Plus, we have references to peoples in Canaan, soon to be Eretz Yisrael, hearing about the power of God. These references could easily be understood as stating that the Kingdom of God was still to come.
Ultimately, I believe that this dichotomy of meanings (future v present) led our Sages to develop a made-up version of this verse. In our davening, we declare: HASHEM MELECH, HASHEM MALACH, HASHEM YIMLOCH L’OLAM VA’ED (God rules, God ruled, God will rule forever and ever). We recite this dramatic affirmation every day (I prefer the S’fard approach to stand and recite it responsively, but I follow my Ashkenazic custom), however on the High Holidays this avowal becomes a common refrain in a number of liturgical poems (PIYUTIM).
This made-up verse (Rav Meir Bar Ilan called it a PASUCK MALACHUTI) was apparently written by the Geonim from sentence fragments (HASHEM MELECH, Tehillim 10:16; HASHEM MALACH, Tehillim 97:1). Part of the intent may have been to solve the problem of when is the Divine rule. It is, was and will be. Cool.
The Gesher Hachayim wrote that one of the major differences between humans and lower animal forms is our ability to differentiate between the present and those things which have already occurred in the past, and to be able to anticipate events still to come in the future. According to him, this statement is a powerful expression of that reality, and, therefore, a daily reminder of our humanity.
It is written in the Shibolei Haleket and the Rokeach that this triple declaration is made every morning as the sun rises by the angels in heaven. Based on that assertion, came the Nusach S’fard custom to stand and recite this statement responsively, twice, imitating the angels, sort of like the KEDDUSHA prayer. Of course, the sun is rising somewhere around the globe all the time, therefore this declaration is always being recited in heaven.
The Ben Ish Chai says that this verse should always be recited twice. He claims that we are accepting God as our sovereign over both our bodies and our souls. This is based on the double declaration made by the Jews witnessing the miracle of Eliyahu HaNavi’s burnt offering on Har Hacarmel, when the Jews cried out: HASHEM HU HA’ELOKIM, HASHEM HU HA’ELOKIM (Melachim I 18:39). I’ve begun reciting this statement twice in my morning reading of the YEHI KAVOD collection of verses, just before ASHREI.
Personally, I like the ambiguity. To me, it’s really powerful to feel the power of God’s rule right now in my life and times. On the other hand, it’s also compelling to understand that the future Kingdom of God will be something worth waiting for. God’s presence is extraordinary, but the best is yet to come. I can hardly wait!