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Subtle But True

An important philosophical debate with practical implications on our daily prayers stems from a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. This debate is recorded in the tractate of Talmud, Yoma, 69b (the name of this tractate references Yom Kippur, “The Day.”) In this debate we find none other than the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel arguing with the other rabbis of the “Great Assembly.” This distinct title was given to that Sanhedrin (Supreme Court). There were, in fact, 120 prophets and scholars on that court including Mordecai, Ezra, and Nechemiah. Their debate centered on whether or not to include two words in the daily prayer.

In our parasha, Eikev, (10:17) Moshe says in his prayer, “God, הגדול ,הגבור והנורא the great, powerful, and awesome…” Jeremiah said to the Men of the Great Assembly, “Strangers (a reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s army after the destruction of the first Temple) are celebrating with wild abandon in the remains of His Holy Temple. Where is God’s נורא, awesomeness?” Jeremiah, we are told, took the word נורא, “awesome” out of his daily prayer. Daniel then said to the court, “Strangers are enslaving His children. Where is His גבורה, “power?” So, Daniel stopped using the word גבור, “powerful” in his daily prayer.

The other judges on the Great Assembly responded, “On the contrary! His power is displayed in that He restrains His will, showing long-suffering countenance to the wicked. His awesomeness is also displayed. Were it not for the awe that the other nations have for God, how could one solitary nation survive among all the other nations of the world (that constantly seek its destruction)?” The Men of the Great Assembly, reinstated “powerful and awesome” into our daily prayer. Due to their ruling over 2000 years ago, we include these 2 words today in every prayer.

You may ask, as does the Talmud, how could anyone, even great prophets, seek to uproot the words of prayer established by Moshe? After all, Moshe achieved the highest level of knowledge of God possible by man. If Moshe said these 3 words describing God’s essence, how could anyone take them away? The Talmud answers, “They (Jeremiah and Daniel) knew that God is truthful and despises falsehood. Therefore, they could not speak falsehood before Him.” The rest of the Great Assembly also knew God loves truth and hates falsehood. Yet they ruled we should say “powerful and awesome” just as we say “great.” Surely, they didn’t hold it was OK to lie to God? So how do we account for this argument between Jeremiah and Daniel versus the Men of the Great Assembly?

The answer lies in how we are to view these 3 words used by Moshe to describe God. All 3 words are to cause us, when we pray, to reflect on certain essential attributes of God. While we cannot possibly know exactly what Moshe meant by them in his praise of God, our Talmud has here given us permission to say them and a small insight into their meaning. The word “great,” for which there is no dispute, is not the idea that God is bigger or better than anything else in a quantitative way. Rather, this term references the sublime qualitative difference between God and everything else that exists. This notion is similar to what we should think when we say in the Shema, “God is one.” His oneness is not like any oneness we can conceive of.

As for the inclusion of the terms “powerful and awesome,” the issue boils down to whether these attributes of God must be overtly manifest for us to say them in our praise to God or is their covert manifestation by God enough for us to say them in prayer? So for example, does Giancarlo Stanton have to be hitting a homerun in order to praise him for his power at the plate or is his powerful swing still praiseworthy even if we meet him on the street. In both situations the attribute is true. Does a body builder have to be flexing his muscles for us to describe his strength? Jeremiah and Daniel held that when saying praise to God, we are only permitted to use words that are overtly manifest to us. We clearly see God’s power and awesomeness. The Men of the Great Assembly, on the other hand, held that while covert manifestation of God’s attributes is harder for people to see and realize, they are nonetheless true and worthy of our praise.

Current events in the world continue to bear out the position of the Men of the Great Assembly. First, God subdues, so to speak, His power every moment. This truth is manifested by our continued existence despite our disregard for His law . We can all related to some insult or wrong that is done do us. We must exercise great power to control our desire to lash out in immediate response. God relates to us in a similar way. Our undeserved continued existence gives us the opportunity to reflect on our poor behavior and change. Gratefully, this idea of power, as it relates to God’s essence, applies even to the most wicked of men.

Second, we know today, from first-hand experience, how precarious the existence of Jews and the tiny nation of Israel are. Since its recent establishment, a mere 71 years ago, nations near and far have sought to destroy it. Every day many, even in our own government, call for its total annihilation. Even Israel’s allies equivocate or openly capitulate to the will of its sworn enemies. It is nothing short of God’s awesomeness, then, that has sustained the modern country of Israel and the Jewish people around the world.

The Men of the Great Assembly were right in ruling that the terms “powerful and awesome” must always be included in our praise of God. As the Talmud Yoma tells us, “They restored the crown of God’s glory to its original luster.” No matter how bleak the situation for Israel and Jews around the world seems at any time, never lose sight of God’s 3 fold attributes. We recite them every day in our prayer as our individual praise to the Creator of the universe and as the protector on our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan