INSIGHT

5761 - #39

THE GREAT, MIGHTY AND AWFUL GOD

EKEV

    In the first paragraph of the Shemona Esreh, the essential prayer of Judaism, our opening praise of God is very simple and very straightforward: HaKeil hagadol hagibbor v'hanora, “the great, mighty and awful (or awesome) God.” T.B. Berachot 33b explains the use of these specific words of praise:

"A certain [person] went down [to pray] in the presence of Rabbi Hanina and said. O God, the great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, sure and honoured. He waited till he had finished, and when he had finished he said to him. Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this? Even with these three that we do say [great, mighty and awful], had not Moses our Master mentioned them in the Law and had not the Men of the Great Synagogue come and inserted them in the Tefillah [Shemona Esreh], we should not have been able to mention them, and you say all these and still go on! It is as if an earthly king had a million denarii of gold and someone praised him in possessing silver coins. Would it not be an insult to him?"1

Rashi reveals that the source in the Torah for the use of these three words of praise is Devarim 10:17.
    In many ways, human beings assume an ease in their relationship with God. Somehow the idea and right that we can approach God is perceived to be an inalienable part of our very being. The above quote draws a powerful and, perhaps, harsh reality: who are we to approach God? We feel that we recognize the Greatness of the Divinity when we praise Him, but who are we to even praise Him? Do we have the words and the comprehension to contemplate the Divine? Throughout the Torah literature, this recognition is to be an axiom of our consciousness - the true distinction and rift between the human being and God. We shy from mentioning His Name;


this is a manifestation of this recognition of Awesomeness.2 Ramban3 states that the Torah has to give permission for Man to pray for who are we to be able to approach God. It is only God’s Caring that allows us to pray. But even then we must recognize Whom we stand before. God. All other descriptions are but feeble human efforts whereby even the attempts at language detracts from the true reality.
    As such, Rabbi Hanina declares that it is only a formula that God Himself, through Moshe, presented to us that is able to be used in our language of praise. This is God’s language; this is God’s description of Himself. The human being cannot fathom God - understand Him, describe Him. The only appropriate language is thus His language.
Yet, it is not Moshe’s presentation of the formula alone that led to its inclusion in the Shemona Esreh. It is the Men of the Great Synagogue, Anshei Knesset Hagedola, that chose to include this language in our most basic prayer. With this inclusion, they took God’s formula and made it their language. The human being cannot attempt to praise God without instruction from the Divine on the possible language of praise. But this language of praise also has no meaning unless the one uttering these words comprehends meaning in these words and ties personal understanding to the words.
    T.B. Yoma 69b presents the following:

Why were they called the men of the Great [Synagogue]? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. [For] Moses had come and said: The great God, the mighty and the awful. Then Jeremiah came and said: Aliens are destroying His Temple. Where are, then His awful deeds? Hence he omitted [the attribute] the ‘awful’.4 Daniel came and said: Aliens are enslaving his sons. Where are His mighty deeds? Hence he omitted the word ‘mighty’.5 But they came and said: On the contrary! Therein lie His mighty deeds that He suppresses His wrath, that He extends long-suffering to the wicked. Therein lie His awful powers: For but for the fear of Him, how could one [single] nation persist among the [many] nations! But how could [the earlier] Rabbis6 abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false [things] to Him.1

    Truth for the human being is elusive. We do not understand and we must recognize that we do not understand. Who are we to praise God? It is false to assume that we can know God and achieve a language of description of He Who is incomprehensible to us. Yet this lack of understanding also does not allow us to simply accept and apply that which we do not understand. As Yirmiyahu and Daniel demonstrated, it is equally false to say words that we do not comprehend, to simply reiterate descriptions of the Divine even if such words are presented by the Divine. Even as we know we cannot understand, we must still reach an understanding. If we are to speak, our words must have meaning to us, otherwise they are but gibberish. God is God; we cannot know Him. But for God to have any meaning in our lives, we must strive for a personal understanding that we can comprehend. Included in this recognition must also be the words “I do not know.”

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

1 Translation from the Soncino Talmud.

2 I once mentioned to someone my reluctance to even say Baruch Hashem and my feeling that this phrase may be overused. Even with the best of intentions, when we bring God, in an over-extended way, into our common language, we challenge the Awesomeness of His Existence and Presence.

3 Ramban’s Commentary to Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 5.

4 See Yirmiyahu 32:17.

5 See Daniel 9:4.

6 Yirmiyahu and Daniel.


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