By Rabbi Dovid Markel
In the Chabad Machzor there is a fascinating story printed before the “Hamelech” which commences the liturgy of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
It tells a story how once, as the holy rebbe, Reb Aaron of Karlin, began the prayer of “Hamelech” he fell into a deep faint. When he was asked the reason he replied that at that had contemplated the statement that Vespasian had told R. Yochanan ben Zakai when he came to him to plead for Jerusalem. Namely, “if I am a king, why did you not come to me before now?” While R. Yochanan ben Zakai had excused his absence, for himself he found no excuse. It is because he was overwhelmed by his forsaking the King, king of kings, that he was utterly overwhelmed by the fact that he had no answer for G-d.
Now, this story seems somewhat odd; while R. Yochanan ben Zakai had not come to Vespasian due to the zealots who had prevented any peace with Roman, surely Reb Aaron of Karlin had approached G-d as king his entire life.
This episode can perhaps be understood by way of the following allegory:
A simple peasant received a letter one day that the king would be visiting his home, while he knew the king was a tremendously important individual, he had no working paradigm to imagine the greatness of the king. The closest imagery that he conjured up was the village elder and mayor; knowing that the king was surely even greater than them he knew that he should prepare his house accordingly. He washed his floors, cleaned his hovel, and for extra measure purchased a new set of dishes and a decanter of wine to serve his king. When the big day arrived he was satisfied that he was adequately prepared to host to king; that is until he heard the first trumpets announcing the king’s arrival, and peaked out of his window and saw the king’s entourage. Seeing the pomp which accompanied the king, he realized that not only was he not prepared by any stretch of the imagination, but his meager setup was of great insolence towards the king.
The same is true of the Almighty, the king of kings. As finite beings, infinitely distant from any conception of G-d we tend to create paradigms that envision G-d in our own image. Granted we realize that any description of G-d in our own rubric is laughable, we nevertheless apply human definitions with the caveat that these descriptions are not literal but figurative, conceptual and symbolic of a greatness that surpasses our imagination. However, no matter the qualifications and admonitions we cannot help but view G-d in a paradigm that is not only ridiculous and ludicrous at best, but is generally impudent as well. When our understanding of G-d is elevated and we at moments of inspiration receive a sense of the King’s greatness—each according to his level—we are overcome with a shock that in truth we never actually served the king, but rather a senseless caricature of Him.
Notwithstanding that that no matter our preparation, when faced with the essence of G-d’s reality we will be overcome with our utter worthlessness, there is never the less a manner that we can approach the Almighty. For if Israel is called “His nation,” there is a sense that He relates to us in a manner that we can digest. Not only must we approach Him, and bequeath to Him, with the all of our finite selves, but in truth there is an element within us that can indeed relate to Him—our G-dly soul.
This G-dly spark embedded within each and every one of us is both undefinable and indivisible from G-d. It is because it does not seek to define G-d, but rather be one with Him, that it can relate to Him. For, as long as we seek to define Him, he remains ever transcendent, but when we seek to have a relationship with Him, He comes to each and every one of us with the statement (Shemot, 20:2) “”I am the Lord, your G-d,” which as explained in Tanchuma coveys that G-d related to each in way that they could appreciate. While superficially this may seem as an essential duality (See Balei ToSafot on the verse) or a G-d that can be described the opposite is the case.
Paradoxically, it is because the Almighty is removed from any definition that He comes to us in a manner that we can appreciate (See Orot HaKodesh 1:1:4). It is this statement that is the crux of the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “Our G-d…be exalted over the earth in Your splendor, and reveal Yourself in the majesty of Your glorious might over all the inhabitants of Your terrestrial world. May everything that has been mad know that You have made it; may everything that has been created understand that You have created it; and may everyone who has the breath in his nostrils declare that the Lord, G-d of Israel, is King and His Kingship has dominion over all.”
The essence of this liturgy is the crux of the messianic era, where not only will (Yeshayhu, 11:9) “the land shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea bed,” but this reality with permeate all of existence, not only will an individual be able to perceive G-d in all that is, but this G-dliness will affect all of the inhabitants of the world as the verse (Tzfanya 3:9) states: “For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language that all of them call in the name of the Lord, to worship Him of one accord.”
The above thought addresses as well a principle question regarding the messianic era: on one hand the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) states: “Three come when one is unaware: Moshiach, a found article and a scorpion,” yet on the other hand we declare—using Maimonides’ formula—that we constantly await his coming.
Yet the explanation is said above; on one hand we prepare and await his coming, when G-d will be utterly revealed, on the other we are cognizant that no matter our preparation, what we will actually perceive will catch us by surprise—as it is beyond our wildest imagination. Just as on Rosh HaShana we must bridge this paradox of preparing for a revelation that we cannot prepare for, so too with the coming of moshiach; when we study Chassidic thought which describes the relationship of G-d and Israel in the most coherent of terms we prepare for a time when (Zecharya 14:9) “the Lord shall become King over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one.” May it happen speedily in our times!