Ki Tissa 5764
Rabbi Micha Berger wrote last week about the first paragraph of the Shmoneh Esreh. He spoke about the primary importance of the phrase “HaKel HaGadol HaGibor Vehanora”, as it describes how Hashem directs His power to the world and to us as individuals, and gives structure to the entire berachah. It expresses our confidence in God’s omnipotence. But it was not always thus.
The Gemara in Yoma 69b brings a very interesting account of this phrase’s use. It originated with Moshe in Devarim 10:17. While he exhorts the people to do The Right Thing, he tells them it is because Hashem is the Great, Mighty and Awesome God. Brachot 33b takes this as the ne plus ultra of praise of God, the full reason for our adherence to Him and His Will.
But the verse is quoted by two later prophets, under vastly different conditions than obtained in the Plains of Moab, on the verge of entering the Land.
The first is Jeremiah 32:18, during the final siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah is in prison, for prophesying the downfall of the Judean kingdom. He has just been given a symbol of thel return from exile, buying tribal land from his cousin Hanamel and burying the deed in a jar. He prays to God, praising Him as “the great and mighty God”, but not as awesome. Why? Rashi cites our Gemara, that “non-Jews are dancing in the courtyard of Your Temple, the place of your Awe on Earth; how can I describe You as Awesome?” He emends Moshe’s praise to fit the current situation.
Daniel then quotes our verse, in the depths of the Babylonian exile. Thinking that the seventy years of Jerusalem’s desolation were nearing their end, he prays to God that He send the deliverance soon. As we now know is normal in prayer, he opens with praises of Hashem, “the great and awesome God”, but not Mighty. How can he praise God as Mighty, when God is hidden, we are exiled among, and enslaved to, non-Jews? And we paraphrase the conclusion of his prayer in our Selichos (Dan. 9:17-19).
Then the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah came, including in their number several prophets as well as the non-prophetic rabbis who would succeed the prophets as authorized Carriers of the Tradition, and in constructing the text of the daily prayers, restored Moshe’s praise to its full glory. How, when the Second Temple was not fully functional, when the Jews were subjugated to foreign powers?
They reinterpreted the pshat in the pasuk. According to the Chavos Yair,
“if the simple translation makes no sense and we have to explain it in a way that makes sense - that explanation is called Pshat and not the simple translation.”
(Mar Kashisha p. 29, quoted by R’ Daniel Eidensohn in Avodah vol. 2 no. 55)
They reinterpreted Mighty to describe Hashem’s restraint in not fully expressing His anger and destroying the sinful Jews, only demolishing their Temple. Awesome was taken to mean inspiration of the fear of God, without which it would have been impossible for the Jews to continue to exist while exiled among other nations. Thus they wholeheartedly restored the full praise of Moshe into the thrice-daily fundamental prayer.
The gemara concludes with the troubling question,
“how could our Rabbis (Rashi: the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel) do this, uprooting the takkanah of Moshe? R’ Eliezer said, ‘because they knew that God was the God of Truth, therefore they could not lie about Him.”
The decree of Moshe, the perfect qualification of God’s praise, was uprooted by later and lesser prophets, because the simple meaning of the verse bothered them, and seemed untrue. Only later did the even lesser Rabbis “restore the Crown to its former glory”.
The Maharsha puts it most poignantly. The prophets could not lie to their generations. However, the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah, with the perspective of the end of exile, including among their number Mordechai, instrumental in the Jews’ survival through hidden miracles, could see that God’s greatness consisted of withholding His anger, that His Awesomeness consisted of inspiring fear to maintain the connection between the Jews and Himself. The Anshe Knesset Hagedolah were thus called “Hagedolah” because they, through reinterpretation of pshat, magnified the perception of God’s strengths and attributes, restoring meaning to all of the attributes given by Moshe. (See also the essay at http://www.aishdas.org/toratemet/en_devarim.html - ed.)
What latitude does that give our parshanei hamikra? Quite a lot, it seems, given the wide variety of interpretations all passing for “pshat” in the past 2500 years of Biblical interpretation. That possibility apparently continues today. Never let it be said that the Tradition is static, frozen in some pre-modern mold. The time-honored model of innovative interpretation, from it ssource in the aggados of Chazal and its continued practice throughout the ages, includes reinterpretation of non-legal material to fit the tenor of the times. See Meiri’s commentary to Avot 3:15 for guidelines on allegorization of Scripture; also Maimonides Guide II:25.
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I am indebted to R’ Reuven Cohn of Newton, MA, who pointed out this gemara to me.