5761 - #39
THE GREAT, MIGHTY AND AWFUL GOD
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
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.
Commentary to Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 5.
4 See Yirmiyahu
5 See Daniel 9:4.
6 Yirmiyahu and
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