Happy Tuesday! After a summer hiatus, I am returning to Tefillah Tuesdays. Our progress through the liturgy, has brought us to the first paragraph of the Amidah. Today, let’s linger over the phrase above, קונה הכל/Koneh HaKol, affirming that “God possesses all.”
Like so much in the prayer book, this is a biblical allusion: After Abraham defeats an army of four Mesopotamian kings with just his 318 soldiers, Melchizedek, King of (Jeru)Salem congratulates him with this blessing: “Blessed be Avram to God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, קונה שמים וארץ/Koneh shamayim va’aretz [Genesis 14.19].” It is not unusual for the siddur to slightly rephrase Bible verses. Perhaps for the tightness of its rhythm (using two syllables instead of six), or the music of its repeated K sound, the siddur replaced heaven & earth with kol/all. This does not change the meaning at all, since, of course, heaven & earth just means everything. (Also, the original, unmodified phrase from Genesis makes its own appearance in the prayer book, in the summary of the Amidah for Friday night.)
How to translate this phrase? There is a little semantic wiggle room regarding the verb קנה. In conventional Hebrew today it means “to buy” something, which is obviously not correct here. God didn’t log in to Amazon to buy heaven & earth. (Although Amazon probably does sell the Amazon.) Rather, in Biblical Hebrew עשה/asah and קנה/ kanah are basically synonymous. Both verbs are semantically flexible enough to cover the primary meaning of to make, as well as derivatives like own, possess or acquire.
So, the simplest meaning of the phrase in Genesis is that God is “creator” or “maker” of the cosmos. That could fit our prayer book as well: “God is great, mighty and awesome, the most high, doing kindness .…” In that list, “creator of all” is not out of place. Davvening with that meaning in mind, a worshiper offers an awestruck wow! at the divine handiwork.
I prefer a slightly different nuance, however, and would translate that God “possesses all.” As Torah commentator Rashi notes, “by virtue of creating the world, it belongs to God.” Davvening in this way builds in me the consciousness that all existence has value and dignity because it belongs to the divine. I’m with the mystics who assert that the very fact that something exists is living proof that it manifests some divine energy. If God really was absent, it simply would not exist. (Cut me a break and leave aside for the moment whether Ebola virus or Smallpox bears divine dignity. Natural evil is a hard problem. You can still davven the Amidah even if you have not solved it.)
This worshipful awareness can shape how you respond to life. That jerk from work? The scary dog? The stinky ginkgo tree? The gelatinous ugliness of Psychrolutes marcidus, the smooth-headed blobfish? God possesses all, and by virtue of that truth, all reality, even when it is unlikable or unappealing, must have some value. Our davvening can help shape our spiritual personalities, opening up our hearts and eyes to sense the preciousness in all life.
I’ll close with a comment by the early Hasidic master, R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk [d. 1787], who applied this line in the prayer book to understanding the shortcomings of all ordinary folk. The great ancestors who are the main subject of this blessing – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – were true giants. They transformed the world and made an eternal covenant with God. Us? Maybe not so much. We do some good deeds and muck up others. The ancestors earned divine grace with their excellence. But “we who are poor in deed and heartless, we must pray to God to arouse divine mercy toward us. … God does not wait until we have triggered divine mercy thanks to our sainted deeds. Rather, God is koneh hakol, possessing everything, meaning that in the great divine mercy, the blessed God accepts us all [ Noam Elimelekh, Vayechi, s.v. Vayikrevu].”