Serving the King
Britain has a new king! This moment has led to reflection the world over on the topic of monarchy and leadership, but of course, these aren't new questions in Jewish tradition. We call God Melech Haolam, "King of the Universe" - but what does this metaphor really mean? (Hint: It doesn't mean that God is petty, selfish slave-driver!)
Serving the King
For the first time in more than 70 years, Britain’s national anthem is now “God Save the King.” When the world’s longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, died last week, her son, the Prince of Wales, Charles III, succeeded her as king. Have you noticed, though, that King Charles hasn’t yet had a coronation ceremony? He’s the king, but he hasn’t been crowned.
There’s a difference—and there always has been—between being the monarch and being proclaimed the monarch. The crowning of a king or queen is a national affair, a public assertion of the relationship between the sovereign and their people.
Reflecting on the concept monarchy is fitting at this High Holy Day season as one of the primary themes of Rosh Hashanah is malchuyot, God’s sovereignty. Indeed as bible scholar Marc Brettler has noted, Rosh Hashanah as we know it was likely designed to serve as an annual re-enthronement of the Eternal as Israel’s divine king. God is constantly invoked in Jewish prayer as Eloheinu melech ha-olam, our God, King of the world – yet only once per year, the People of Israel come together for a spectacular and moving ceremony of coronation.
Now, coronations and kingships are unwelcome notions in the minds of most Americans. We balk at the image of God as our king, and not just because of the gendered language baked into the concept. Kings represent distant and power-hungry rulers despotically exploiting the masses to perpetuate their own power and wealth. And for most of human history, including during the centuries when the Rosh Hashanah liturgy was composed, this would be a reasonably fair accounting of kingship.
But that’s what makes God’s sovereignty so marvelous. For as self-serving and apathetic as kings of flesh and blood may have been, the Eternal as king is exactly the opposite. Consider this story from the Babylonian Talmud:
A man named Onkelos was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. Though his uncle was renowned for destroying the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Onkelos converted to Judaism. Naturally, the caesar sent a contingent of soldiers to arrest him. Onkelos, however, quoted Torah at the soldiers, who all promptly converted to Judaism as well.
Titus sent more soldiers, this time commanding them not to engage Onkelos in conversation. But wily Onkelos, as he was being dragged away in chains, posed a question to his captors: “[In a procession] the torchlighter carries the light in front of the torchbearer, the torchbearer in front of the leader, the leader in front of the governor, the governor in front of the chief officer; but does the chief officer carry the light in front of the people [that follow]?”
“No!” they replied, certain that their own leader would never hold a torch to light their path. So Onkelos continued: “Well, the Holy One does carry the light before Israel, for Scripture says: The Eternal went before them by day [in a pillar of cloud to guide them along the way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light] (Exodus 13:21).” Then these soldiers, too, converted.
A third and—naturally—a final time, Titus sent soldiers to arrest his nephew. And again, he managed to break the silence with a parable: “According to universal custom, the mortal king dwells within, and his servants keep guard on him without; but [in the case of] the Holy One of Blessing, the servants dwell within while God keeps guard on them from without; as it is said: יְהֹוָה יִשְׁמׇר־צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ, The Eternal shall guard your going out and your coming now and forever (Psalm 121:8).” Perhaps thinking about their own king and the degree to which he offered to keep guard over them—that is to say, not at all—the Roman soldiers immediately cast their lot in with the God of Israel, converting to Judaism just as their comrades-in-arms had done.
And with this, Emperor Titus stopped sending soldiers after his persuasive Jewish nephew.
This is my favorite story of God as king, and it reflects the general principle that our tradition underscores about God’s sovereignty. When God is our king, God is close at hand. Unlike a mortal ruler, God knows and cares about every single one of God’s subjects. And unlike the laws of human sovereigns, God’s rules are designed to increase our flourishing and satisfaction, not God’s own. God takes the image of a mortal king and turns it on its head, putting God’s subjects in the center and doing everything possible to keep them safe.
These are metaphors, of course, but they also bear the imprint of truth. We can in good conscience only worship a God who advances the flourishing of life. This week’s Torah portion is a reminder of the immanence of God—however we understand God to be—and the impact on our daily lives of observing the sacred obligations and opportunities conveyed to us through the centuries.
Once again this week, the Torah potion features a rich array blessings and curses. If you do right by the Eternal, keeping God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways (Deut. 28:9), then “blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. … Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ, Blessed shall be your coming in and blessed shall be your going out” (Deut. 28:3-6).
On the other hand, if you spurn God, refusing to “observe faithfully all of God’s commandments and laws” (Deut. 28:15) … well, things don’t look good: “The Eternal will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake. … The Eternal will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. … The Eternal will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover” (Deut. 28:20, 24, 27). And it gets worse from there.
All of this “because you would not serve the Eternal your God in gladness and joy” (Deut. 28:47). As we read in Leviticus, just before the last round of blessings and curses, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt—I, the Eternal your God” (Lev. 25:55). In other words, the Torah is teaching us to affirm, truthfully if not literally, that God is our ruler and we are God’s servants. By walking in God’s paths instead of the paths of our own design, we confess that our own opinions and conclusions are never without flaw. We stand in humility as servants to the monarch who wants nothing but that we should do what is right for ourselves and the world we share with all creation.
The imagery of our Torah portion, just like the symbols of the machzor, can strain credulity and heighten our skepticism. Blessings and curses, servants and kings seem like ideas from a different age and, most importantly, for different people. But it is our task at this season to discover within them the wisdom that makes us better. For at the heart of this series of texts and prayers is a single unifying truth: None of us is king. None of us can fully grasp the mysteries of creation nor determine with certainty the morals that ought to guide our society. I believe our tradition is both reflective and wise in suggesting that God—a persona unlike any person—stands as a symbol for all we hope to achieve in our lives but cannot make manifest without the encouragement and support of one another.
We strive to be, in a word, servants. And we are not alone in this endeavor. Believe it or not, the motto “I serve” has undergirded the British monarchy for nearly 800 years. Indeed, these words are the banner of the insignia reserved for the Prince of Wales, the heir apparent to the British throne. And these are the words invoked by Princess Elizabeth II, heir presumptive to the British crown, in a famous speech she delivered on her 21st birthday:
“There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, ‘I serve.’ … I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
This could, indeed, by the motto for all of us during these High Holy Days. Princess Elizabeth said 75 years ago, “I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me,” and we, too, turn to one another for encouragement and support in our period of self-reflection and heartfelt prayer.
May these Days of Repentance bring us closer to a life of humility, of blessing and of service.
 “God’s Coronation on Rosh Hashanah.” https://www.thetorah.com/article/coronation-on-rosh-hashanah-what-kind-of-king.
 BT Avodah Zarah 11a. See also BT Gittin 56b.
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