So many of the words of our high holidays machzor describe our God as melech, king, judging us from on high. For many of us, God as melech can be tough. The qualities we associate with kings – remote, haughty, erratic, judgmental – are not the qualities we want in a rightful and trusted authority who we hope has the power to forgive us. This image of a distant monarch can disrupt the spiritual work of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Thankfully there are other metaphors for God in our liturgy that feel more accessible: chei ha’olamim/the life of the universe, dodeinu/our beloved, oseh shalom/the One who makes peace. Usually I focus on these images. But this year, the notion of God as melech speaks to me.
This year we’ve tasted the bitterness of life under a hateful ruler. Many of our ancestors both recent and long ago also lived under rulers who were capricious, paranoid, and egotistical; who lied, cheated, and exploited the vulnerable; who reigned through fear, oppression, division, and violence. Living under tyranny, our ancestors wrote into our liturgy a revolutionary vision of what true authority.
On the Yamim Nora’im we pray in the language of justice, fairness, and love of humanity. God is the sovereign of the 13 attributes that we sing over and over on Yom Kippur: rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed/gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. We praise God for being a melech ozer umoshi’a umagein, a ruler who helps, saves, and protects. Our machzor proclaims that this monarch will rule forever, which is described as watching over the immigrant, protecting the widow and the orphan, disrupting evil, providing justice for the oppressed and freedom for the captives, judging fairly, and acting righteously, lovingly, and compassionately.
The spiteful, hate-filled wielding of power currently in our midst at once looks weak and insignificant set against this vision of a Power of endless love and liberation. This year I am proud of our ancestors for pledging their allegiance – and mine – to this kind of power. I’m grateful that they gave us the High Holidays as a time to hold ourselves accountable to sacred standards of justice and love, to repent for where we fell short, and to experience the joy and renewed zest for life and sacred work that comes with a spiritual clean slate.
When Yom Kippur starts tonight, I invite us to explore what it means to relate to God as our melech. How might we truly be ruled by a force of love and compassion that calls us to action this year as emissaries of that compassion and justice?
This Yom Kippur, may we all stand accountable before righteousness and compassion, may we forgive and be forgiven, and may we continue to answer the call to serve true authority.
G’mar chatimah tovah.