Today We Birth a World

Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Professor, Rabbinic Literature

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

posted on September 25, 2022

Arthur: I am your king!

Woman:  Well I didn't vote for you!

Arthur: You don't vote for kings!

Woman:  Well 'ow'd you become king then?

(holy music up)

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake-- her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.  THAT is why I am your king!

Man:    (laughingly) Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!  Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some... farcical aquatic ceremony!

Arthur: (yelling) BE QUIET!

Man:    You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!!

Arthur: (coming forward and grabbing the man) Shut *UP*!

Man:    I mean, if I went 'round, saying I was an emperor, just because some moistened bink had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!

Arthur: (throwing the man around) Shut up, will you, SHUT UP!

Man:    Aha!  Now we see the violence inherent in the system!

Arthur: SHUT UP!

Man:    (yelling to all the other workers) Come and see the violence inherent in the system!  HELP, HELP, I'M BEING REPRESSED!

Arthur: (letting go and walking away)  Bloody PEASANT!

Man:    Oh, what a giveaway!  Did'j'hear that, did'j'hear that, eh?  That's what I'm all about!  Did you see 'im repressing me?  You saw it, didn't you?!

-Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Draw near nations and come kingdoms, see how glorious is the binding of [God’s] kingdom,

Exalt God with me and let us exalt God together, and do not take pride in the crown of [mortal] kingdom.  

-piyyut for Rosh Hashanah, Yosi ben Yosi, 2nd-3rd century Palestine

On Thursday September 8, Queen Elizabeth died. She was 96 years old. She was immediately succeeded on the throne by her 73 year old son Charles who would now have his first full-time job. The BBC went into full-on hagiography about the late monarch, praising her low-key and steady ways, and the way she symbolized for Britons around the world the steadiness of their country. One commentator, the former Prime Minister of Canada, hailed her role, stating that “the monarchy is the thing that ensures Britain’s democracy.” All of this was said with a straight face, of course, and with the gravity appropriate to an Empire—even an Empire in its dotage.

No room was left for discussion of the fact that Elizabeth was a force for colonialism and exploitation in many parts of the world; that India and Africa had suffered atrociously under Britannia’s extractive colonialist rule; that her rule was premised on a mythologized and mystified belief in Divine ordination and white supremacy. (Elizabeth was, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the titular head of the Anglican Church.)

The very notion of a monarchy and a House of Lords undermines democracy and stabilizes a class system which relegates human people to a life of relative misery, while others enjoy the privileges of race and wealth.

All this is happening in this year, during the month of Elul, as we move towards Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the New Year and the yearly crowning of God as monarch. How is it that we still use this metaphor for God? 

Admittedly, we make use of other metaphors. Avinu/Our father is one. Though often it is tied to malkenu/our monarch. The anonymous poet of the liturgical poem “ki anu amecha” seems to luxuriate in the plethora of descriptors of God: our estate, our shepherd, our master. our fate. our guardian, our creator, our lover. Yet, when we get to the heart of the uniquely Rosh Hashanah musaf prayer, arguably the central focus of the day’s service, we give voice to three blessings mandated in the mishnah (the earliest Rabbinic text). The first one of these is called malkhiyot, literally, kingdoms or monarchies. (The other two are zichronot/rememberings and shofarot/shofars.) Monarchy is central to our religious imaginary even as we barrel forwards through the twenty-first century, living here in these United States, the third century of, if not a complete democracy, still definitely not a monarchy. Why do we still use the language of monarchy to extoll God? 

Here is where Yosi ben Yosi, the third century Palestinian paytan or liturgical poet quoted at the top of this essay, helps us. All the verses that are quoted are verses of God as monarch—not in the image of earthly monarchs, but rather as opposed to earthly monarchs. 

The Torah supplies us a picture in the stories of Saul and David and Solomon of monarchs of flesh and blood. It is not pretty. The monarchy is ripped from Saul, and he spends his days trying to avenge himself on David. David eventually captures Jerusalem as the seat of the kingdom, but his path is so bloody that God forbids him from building the Temple. David also sends a man to his death in order to get his wife. Solomon builds the Temple but then his rule is as you might expect in the lap of excessive luxury, wine, women, and song. All of the major and minor prophets have to do clean-up after the devastation of the top heavy monarchy and temple which has abandoned the poor and the hungry. (Shout out to the haftarah on Yom Kippur, Isaiah 58)

As in all three sections of the musaf services, there are ten verses in the malkhiyot blessing. The verses of the Malkhuyot blessing draw from Torah, Prophets, and Writings. A sampling.  An early verse in the blessing is from Psalms: “for kingship is God’s and God rules the nations” (Psalms 22:27). This is a pretty straightforward statement exalting God’s rule above mortal rule. However, if we look at the verse that precedes this verse we find: “Let the lowly eat and be satisfied; let all who seek God praise God. Always be of good cheer.” God’s rule above all is a promise of hope to the downtrodden. 

Psalms 93:1 gazes upon God in awe: “God is king, He is robed in grandeur; the LORD is robed, He is girded with strength. The world stands firm; it cannot be shaken.” God’s power is the guarantor of the continued existence, the persistence of the world. 

Finally, there is the messianic: “For liberators shall march up- on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be God’s.” Earthly rulers will desire to wreak vengeance upon each other, but the rule of God is above all, beyond all, in contrast to all.

On Rosh Hashanah we extol a Divine ruler who is just and merciful and will rule the earth forever. In other words, not the rulers of flesh and blood who haunt our morality and bedevil our notions of justice on a daily basis. 

At the end of each blessing portion we sing: today is the birth of the world. Today is the day when a new world in which the poor and the hungry and the homeless are at the center of our concerns may be born. Today can be the day when we recognize the kingdom of God.