“The Great, Mighty and Awesome G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, we learn of G-d’s unconditional love for His people. Notwithstanding Israel’s grievous sins, G-d’s love remains steadfast. The demands that He makes upon the people of Israel are only for their good, and despite their straying, G-d continues to shower His beneficence upon His beloved people, Israel.

In one of the most memorable passages of the Torah, Moses asks rhetorically (Deuteronomy 10:12-13), “And now, O Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the L-rd your G-d, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul; to observe the commandments of the L-rd and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit.”

Following this powerful pronouncement, Moses describes the greatness of G-d. In Deuteronomy 10:17, Moses says: “Kee Hashem Eh’loh’kay’chem, Hoo Eh’loh’kay ha’Eh’lo’kim, va’Ah’doh’nay ha’Ah’doh’nim, ha’Kayl ha’gah’dohl, ha’gee’bohr, v’ha’no’rah, ah’sher lo yee’sah fah’nim, v’lo yee’kach shoh’chahd,” For the L-rd your G-d, He is the G-d of the powers, and the L-rd of L-rds, the great, mighty and awesome G-d, Who does not show favor, and Who does not accept bribes.

Unlike mortal rulers, G-d does not favor the prominent or the rich. Instead, with great compassion, He metes out judgment for the orphan and the widow. In fact, the greater a person’s status and potential to do good, the more demanding is G-d of that person.

If parts of the aforementioned biblical citations sound somewhat familiar, it is because this well-known description of G-d constitutes the opening paragraph of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish life, that is recited every single day, “Ha’Kayl ha’gah’dohl, ha’gee’bohr, v’ha’no’rah,” G-d the great, mighty, and awesome G-d.

In Talmud Yoma 69b, we find the following question:

Why were the “Anshei K’nesset Hagdolah,” Men of the Great Assembly called by that grand name? [They answer], because they restored the crown of Divine attributes to its ancient completeness. For Moses had come and said (Deuteronomy 10:17), “G-d, the great, mighty and awesome G-d.” Then Jeremiah came and said (Jeremiah 32:17), “Aliens are destroying His temple. Where are, then, His awesome deeds? Hence, he omitted the attribute of “awesome.” Daniel came and said (Daniel 9:4): “Aliens are enslaving His sons. Where are His mighty deeds? Hence, he omitted the word, “mighty.” But they [the Men of the Great Assembly] came and said, on the contrary, therein lie His mighty deeds, that He suppresses His wrath, that He extends long suffering to the wicked. Therein lie His awesome powers: For, but for the fear of Him, how could one single nation [Israel] persist among the many nations?

But [the Sages ask], how could the early rabbis [Jeremiah and Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Holy One, Blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to Him.

In his brilliant monograph entitled “Prayer,” Dr. Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992, modern Orthodox theologian and educator) explains that there is no room for flattery in prayer. “Anything but strictest honesty of thought and sentiment is inconceivable before G-d… In the eyes of Jewish tradition, the dropping of a phrase of invocation that was used by Moses was an act of impiety toward the Master of all prophets, of which, particularly, such outstanding personalities as Jeremiah and Daniel should not be counted. Yet, it was found justified, because one dare not stand before G-d with insincerity in one’s heart. One must come to G-d in truth. We must mean what we say. How else can one approach G-d, Who knows the innermost recesses of the human heart?”

According to Professor Berkovits, the Talmudic discussion regarding changing or maintaining the original wording of Moses’ description of G-d: “Ha’Kayl ha’gah’dohl, ha’gee’bohr, v’ha’noh’rah,” the great, mighty, and awesome G-d, underscores the efficacy of obligatory prayer. It is often assumed that spontaneous prayer, praying out of intense feeling or due to personal crisis, is the most poignant and exalted form of prayer. But one who turns toward G-d only in times of distress is often selfish and lacking sincerity. Where were you when your world was perfect? Did you thank G-d, did you acknowledge G-d, when everyone was healthy and in good spirits?

It was precisely for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly were given their special honorific title. Certainly these sages appreciated the pain and travail of Jeremiah and Daniel, who felt that they could not bring themselves to say what they considered falsehood when they saw the terrible human suffering and the Temple in ruins before them. Nevertheless, the Men of the Great Assembly said, “No.” We realize that G-d’s goodness is with us even through the suffering, pain and hurt. To the contrary, they said, so great is the mightiness of G-d, that He controls His anger and is long-suffering even with the wicked. This, in fact, is G-d’s awesomeness, for were it not for the fear of G-d, how could a single nation [Israel] survive among all the heathens? Therefore, they restored Moses’ original phraseology to the Amidah.

It is, in truth, only when we see the full picture of G-d that we mortals are able to appreciate His greatness. Focusing on individual tragedies makes it impossible to see the overall and overwhelming goodness of the human condition, which is all due to Divine beneficence.

How fortunate are we, O Israel, that we are judged by a great, mighty, and awesome G-d–our Father in heaven!

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, July 25th and 26th, 2010. Happy Tu b’Av (for more information, please click here)