Yom Kippur: Day of Kingship and Judgment
Translated by Fran Tanner
“For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can abide it?” (Yoel 2:11). This refers to Yom Kippur, when the books of life and the books of death are sealed. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayishlach 2)
The central theme of Rosh Ha-shana is God's kingship, and this continues to feature prominently on Yom Kippur. We see this most clearly in the Amida, where, between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, we refer to God as “ha-Melekh ha-Kadosh” – the Holy King.
God’s judgment of man is intrinsically connected to His kingship. The rest of creation serves God unequivocally, performing His will without deviation. Only human beings, who have been granted freedom of choice, are capable of defying the Divine will, and for this reason we are judged. When God judges man’s actions on the Day of Judgment, it is a testament to His kingship. As such, God's kingship is the essence of the day.
Two aspects of kingship
According to the Gemara, the verse “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” is an expression of God's kingship (Rosh Ha-shana 32b). It seems, then, that Divine kingship is expressed through the concept of God’s oneness. The verse reflects two aspects of this concept: the intrinsic oneness of God, and the oneness of God as manifested in His authority over all of creation.
The first aspect of oneness is difficult for us to articulate. We proclaim in the Adon Olam prayer that God is the “Master of the Universe, Who reigned before anything was created.” This type of kingship exists independently, having predated the creation of all living things.
Yet the verse “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God” also conveys a second aspect of God's kingship and unity: His kingship over us. This refers to our perception of God in this world: a God who alternately reveals and hides Himself from us. In this world of quantity and multiplicity, it is critical to emphasize the oneness of God (in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:7, Rambam emphasizes that knowledge of God’s oneness is a positive commandment). This aspect of Divine unity emphasizes that He is the sole sovereign and nothing can impede His reign; though sometimes it may appear otherwise, there is no other authority in this world.
In our world, good and bad are jumbled together, and often it is difficult to distinguish between them. Our world is full of contradictions; indeed, this is the idea behind the two goats of Yom Kippur – one for God and one to the wilderness. The two goats are of equal appearance, height and value; a person would not be able to distinguish between them. It is only from the lottery that we learn that they have different destinies.
Yom Kippur: Focus on kingship in this world
The second verse that we recite in the Shema prayer, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity,” seems to contradict the idea of God’s intrinsic oneness. “His glorious kingdom” is a phrase that refers to His kingship as it appears in our eyes, which is miniscule in comparison to His sovereignty in itself. Because of this, the verse is recited in a whisper. The Gemara explains:
This is analogous to the daughter of a king who smelled the fragrance of the dried spices stuck to the bottom of the pot and craved to eat them. If she reveals her desire, she suffers disgrace; if she does not, she suffers pain. So her servants began bringing it to her in secret. (Pesachim 56a)
Throughout the year, the nation of Israel is like the princess who smells the dried spices, which are subordinate to the food. We emphasize God’s kingship over us, but we know and recognize that the kingship that we perceive is minute when compared to His intrinsic kingship, which exists independent of us. Therefore we recite “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom" in a whisper. Conversely, on Yom Kippur we say “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom” out loud, because God’s kingship over us is the focus of the day. It is for this reason that we conclude the Yom Kippur service with the recitation of “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” which includes both aspects of kingship.
Kingship over the entire world
God's kingship is supposed to be “al kol ha-aretz, over the entire world,” and Israel, which is a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” is called upon to bring the world to this point. Everything that happens in the world is connected to the Jewish people, because the history of the world is essentially a struggle over Divine kingship. This struggle would not be possible without the Jewish people. This is the meaning of the verse, “The saviors shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau; the kingdom shall be the Lord's” (Ovadia 1:21). We do not always see the connection between world events and the struggle for Divine kingship. However, as messianic times draw closer, the true meaning of these events becomes more transparent and we increasingly see the centrality of Am Yisrael in the world.
We read in Tehillim:
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth changes and though the mountains are moved in the heart of the sea… God is in her midst; she shall not be moved, God shall help her at the dawn of day. Nations raged, kingdoms were moved; He uttered his voice, the earth melted. (Tehillim 46:3-7)
When we see the events of the world around us, we feel certain that every event leads us closer to “dawn of day” – to the advent of the redemption and the revelation of the oneness of God. We then beseech the Master of the World, praying that “God shall help her at the dawn of day,” such that everyone will perceive the process that leads to anointing God as the one King of the world.
King David concludes the psalm with the words “Harpu (be still, or let go) and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (46:11). What is the meaning of the instruction “harpu?” The Midrash explains:
God said to Israel: Let go of your bad deeds and know that I am the Almighty. (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 5:2)
Perfecting one’s deeds is connected to knowing God and making His name one. Indeed, the Rambam writes that each person needs to enlist his whole being in order to focus constantly on one purpose: knowledge of God (Shemona Perakim 5). A precondition for the knowledge of God is perfecting one's deeds and character, and this leads to the revelation of Divine kingship in the world. “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”
When the whole world is agitated and afraid of the events that are taking place, Am Yisrael gathers in the synagogues on Yom Kippur to say “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” and to add, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.”
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