by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
“Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, what is a mortal, that You should consider it? A human is no more than a breath, a life is like a passing shadow” (Psalms 144.3.).
What can express the vulnerability, the insignificance of human beings, more succinctly than that? We live and die in a nanosecond on the continuum of the billions of years of the universe. For all our pretensions, ambitions, pride, and arrogance, we all end up in the same place. “From dust, you came, and to dust, you will return.” It is a sobering thought that we thankfully put out of our minds for most of our lives. But this theme runs through the liturgy both on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What are we? Perhaps this is why we strive so hard to be recognized, to fawn over celebrities for a pinch of their stardust. To yearn for heroes, to make notoriety or popularity a standard or a goal.
Yet the Talmud appears to contradict this when it emphasizes the importance of going, indeed running, to see monarchs in all their glory. And the liturgy on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur emphasizes the kingship, the royalty of God, in all its metaphorical grandeur.
Rabbi Yochanan said that One should always try to run to greet the kings of Israel to see them in their glory. And not only to greet the kings of Israel but even to greet the kings of the nations of the world, so that if he will distinguish between the kings of Israel and the kings of the nations of the world (Talmud Brachot 9b). Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok the priest went even further and said that priests would jump over coffins of the dead to hurry to greet kings of Israel (even if this made them ritually impure and unable to perform in the Temple). And not only kings of Israel, but even kings of the nations of the world, so that if one will distinguish between kings of Israel and kings of the nations of the world (Talmud Brachot 19b).
The implication is that whereas other kings are complete masters of their realms and rule with absolute authority, the kings of Israel are subject to the Torah, a higher authority, the constitution, and are never above the law. The Torah commands that monarchs should always have a copy of the Torah by their side and ideally one they themselves wrote ( Deuteronomy 17:18-20). The message is that however important the external impression is, what mattered more were the internal, personal qualities. And this is behind the Hassidic tradition ( or rather a myth) that the rebbe might ride in a golden carriage but should walk with shoes that have no soles as an act of humility.
Let us ignore the fact that most Israelite monarchs during both Temple eras were neither faithful to the Torah nor particularly impressive individuals, apart from such exceptions as David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah. Most Hasmoneans were not very good examples either. So rabbinic talk about good Israelite kings was more of an abstract ideal than a reality. Certainly not adverts for monarchy as a successful model of governance.
But there is another way of understanding this idea of running to see kings. Rav Sheshet was blind. Everyone was going to greet the king and Rav Sheshet went along with them. A heretic found him and asked why a blind man was coming to see the king. Rav Sheshet said that a blind man can sometimes see more than others. Come see that I know more than you do.
The first troops passed, and when the noise grew louder, this heretic said to him: The king is coming. Rav Sheshet said the king is not coming. The second troop passed, and when the noise grew louder, this heretic said to him, now the king is coming. Rav Sheshet said the king is not coming. The third troop passed, and when there was silence, Rav Sheshet said to him, now the king is coming. The heretic asked how he knew this. Rav Sheshet said to Royalty on earth is like royalty in the heavens and just as God appeared to Elijah in a soft murmur, so kings inspire stillness (Talmud Brachot 58a). The implication is that one stands in awe of the king in the way we stand in awe of God. The monarchy as an example of what might be!
His message was that if only we feared or respected God, the law, as much as we do other human beings. We pray for the welfare of monarchs and political leaders because order and good governance are so essential to human wellbeing. Yet we are under no illusion that they are all human. Religions ought to be one of those tools to get us to think beyond the human, and set higher goals. But like all human institutions, they are imperfect.
Ceremonial, important as it is, is external and it fulfills many important functions in running a state. The Queen was a remarkable person, and her stature grew as the stature of her realm declined. Yet she had almost no power at all. She was a symbol. And a religious symbol as much as a political one. Her passing showed how much we need symbols. For many, God plays that role all the time. Yom Kippur is such a fundamental symbol of life and death, of human frailty. And yet of human magnificence in its emphasis on constantly trying to be better human beings.
Shabbat Shalom and may your fast be a meaningful one.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.