Timely reflections on the coronation
I never cease to be amazed by how what I am learning at any given time has a seemingly serendipitous relevance to a concurrent event in the calendar. But as every believing Jew knows, nothing is entirely by chance.
The Daf Yomi cycle lasts around seven years and five months. Thus a given page of Talmud could occur on any date and at any season of the year. How extraordinary therefore that on the second day of Chol HaMoed Pesach the daf of the day “just happened” to be Sota 11, the primary source in the Gemara for all the well-known stories and commentaries we tell our children about yetsiat Mitsraim (the Exodus).
So I should not have been surprised when, on the night following last Shabbat when we read the parasha of Emor containing our primary Scriptural source for the major festivals of the Jewish year, introduced with a paragraph on the greatest and most ubiquitous of all our Yamim Tovim – the weekly Shabbat – I viewed snippets of the Coronation on my iPhone (we do not own a TV) and found myself cross-referencing and comparing (in a manner of speaking!) aspects of the ceremony to each of our special calendar days.
Shabbat We in Australia were able to view the Coronation in real time. British Jews were not so fortunate. With all the talk about Charles desiring to be inclusive of all major faiths held by Britons, I found it disappointing in the extreme that the event was held on a Saturday, thus preventing most observant Jews from any active or passive participation. The country was given a long weekend with a public holiday on the Monday. Could the Coronation not have been held then?
Pesach The ceremony, basically unchanged in centuries of British coronations, contained scripted, ritualised declamatory passages, brief narrations and invocations, sometimes responsive, which were to be read without deviation from the script, alongside prayers of petition and thanksgiving. I was reminded of our Pesach hagada which also contains a compelling combination of statutory declarations, narratives and praises – except that the bulk of our text is not centuries but millennia old!
Shavuot King Charles III took his oaths, as his predecessors had before him for centuries, on a bible – our Tanach plus the Christian “new testament”. (Incidentally, forgetting the “new” part, I couldn’t help but experience a thrill when I heard the Book of Books which we gave to humankind being described as “the greatest book the world has ever known.”) Unfortunately, the King James edition on which Charles swore and which was edited by Professor Gordon Campbell of Leicester University, retained the 350+ errors and misprints that, by this scholar’s own frank admission, were present in the original 1611 edition – maintained over the centuries presumably for the sake of ‘tradition’ (!) It is difficult to see how meaningful the king’s oath to “maintain the law contained therein” could have been – on all counts! I couldn’t help contrasting that with our ancestors’ oath on Mount Sinai 3,335 years ago to unconditionally maintain through constant study (na’aseh ve-nishma) the Torah, not only the faithful, undisputed written word but the oral explanations taught to Am Yisrael by Moses, a treasure which is uniquely ours!
Rosh HaShana The parallels here are pellucidly clear. Rosh haShana is our annual “coronation day”. Not for us a twice-in-seventy-year event! Annually, we re-affirm our allegiance to G-D, the ultimate King! Imagine if the British Constitution demanded that every citizen pledge anew their allegiance to the king or queen every year! Particularly given the 21st-century mindset, I wonder how long the monarchy would last. Blessedly, however, for the Jew, Rosh HaShana has never lost its freshness or its sublimity!
Yom Kippur On this “sabbath of sabbaths”, our annual opportunity to wipe our moral slate clean, our sins are forgiven. Our sages speak of significant elevations of status having a similar effect. A bride and groom’s slate is wiped clean on their wedding day, as is a convert to Judaism on the day of his or her immersion in a mikveh. Perhaps too for a prince who is formally elevated to kingship? Assuredly he would have been aware of the famous verse in Sefer Mishlei (Proverbs): “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of G-D; wherever He wishes, so does He direct it!” (21:1). In other words, a greater level of hashgacha (Divine watchfulness/guardianship) prevails for a monarch, This can bode good or ill. Certainly the serious demeanour which the king displayed during the ceremony suggested to me that such thoughts may not have been far from his mind as he contemplated his new status as monarch over his realm.
Succot The purpose of our leaving our homes and venturing into flimsy, temporary huts on Succot is to foster within us the trait of humility. For a similar reason, we read the book of Kohelet which teaches that “the pre-eminence of man over beast is zilch, for ultimately all is vanity!” (3:19). This too may have been a thought running through the mind of the new king who is essentially a humble man. This too was evident in his lowered countenance throughout. . It was also evident in the theme which permeated the proceedings, namely that of service to, rather than rulership of, his people, A Jewish king too is humbled more than his subjects; he alone is limited by the Torah in the number of horses he may own (17:16) or wives he may take (17:17) and he alone must carry a Sefer Torah with him wherever he is to remind him that he is a servant of G-D and the Torah. Memorably, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z.l. in his installation as Chief Rabbi (which I attended) made a point of quoting from the B’rich Sh’mei prayer: ana avda de-Kudsha B’rich Hu – “I am a servant of the Alm-ghty”
Finally the Haftara read in shul on Coronation Day alludes to the special era of the future when the messianic king will sit upon the throne of Israel and the Kohanim (spiritual leaders of the nation) will serve in the Third Temple, In this connection it is apposite to cite the Talmudic aphorism (Berachot 58a) that one should exert him/herself to greet monarchs so that if he is meritorious he will see the qualitative difference between their glory and the immeasurably greater glory of Melech HaMashiach.
I think back, as I write, to the admittedly dignified and even majestic service of last week. Then I view in my mind’s eye the undisputed king of Israel, scion of the Davidic dynasty, ascending the special platform built in his honour for Hakhel, the once-in-seven-years gathering of the entire populace during the Succot following shmita (the sabbatical year) and reading, eloquently and fervently, the prescribed Torah passages from Sefer Devarim to a rapt throng of millions (described – by coincidence? – in yesterday’s Daf Yomi, Sota 41) and I understand a little of what Berachot 58a is saying.
May that day dawn very soon!