The Great, Mighty, and Awesome God

הא’ל הגדול הגבור והנורא/ Ha’El HaGadol HaGibor ve’HaNorah

As we’ve seen many times, our prayer book is built upon a pastiche of Biblical allusions and citations. The composers of our prayers, and presumably the davening communities they lived among, knew the Bible thoroughly. For those clued into the code, these allusions bestow tremendous richness to the experience of prayer. With almost every phrase, a davener is transported from the synagogue into high drama along with the ancestors, into conversations with the prophets, and into song along with King David.

In today’s example, from the first lines of the Amidah, the Talmudic rabbis imagine a disagreement among Moses, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Nehemiah and other early Sages about how to pray and what to say. Near the beginning of our Amidah, we quote Deuteronomy 10:17: הא’ל הגדול הגבור והנורא/ Ha’El HaGadol HaGibor ve’HaNorah. “The Great, Mighty, and Awesome God.”

This comes from a passage portraying Hashem as the vast transcendent divinity: “God of all powers, Master of all masters,” who demands our loyalty and service, who also shows concern for the most vulnerable: “who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds justice for orphans and widows, who loves refugees, providing them with food and clothing.” Like all of Deuteronomy, this passage speaks in Moses’ first-person voice. By quoting this phrase, we daveners recite a prayer that Moses himself wrote to worship divine majesty, as it were.

The various biblical writers share a common vocabulary and common set of images and sometimes even identical phrases. It is not strange to find Jeremiah, Daniel, and Nehemiah using these words great, mighty, and awesome, perhaps directly quoting Deuteronomy, or more likely simply using the same sanctified vocabulary. But when the Talmudic Sages see the other prophets use these familiar terms in slightly different ways, they imagine that they are arguing about the text of the Amidah. I will paraphrase that passage [Yoma 69b]:

When Israelites began returning from Babylonian exile to Palestine to build the Second Temple, Ezra and Nehemiah – whom the Talmud takes to be the early proto-rabbis known as the “Members of the Great Assembly” or Ansche Kenesset HaGedolah – reinstituted Jewish practice. On Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot, they begin reading the Torah publicly and told the renewed community an epic account of its history, some of which is still in our daily liturgy. [See all this in Nehemiah 8-9.] Toward the end of the ode [v. 32], Nehemiah addresses Ha’El HaGadol HaGibor ve’HaNorah, “the Great, Mighty, and Awesome God” – exactly matching Moses’ words. Why did he choose this phrasing? Comparing this wording to Jeremiah’s and Daniel’s, the Talmud imagines that those other prophets had recently protested against Moses’ theology.

Said Jeremiah, who witnessed the destruction of the First Temple: “What divine awesomeness?! Watching pagans cavorting in God’s sanctuary, I cannot call God Nora.” And indeed, Jeremiah 32:18 (which happens to be the Haftarah for Behar, which we will read next week), reads: “The Great and Mighty God.” Ha’El HaGadol ve’HaGibbor only. No Nora. Nothing awesome. Jeremiah’s life experience made it impossible for him to daven as Moses had.

Said Daniel, who lived as Nebuchanezzar’s prisoner in exile: “What divine might?! Seeing Babylonians enslave us, I cannot call God gibbor.” And indeed, Daniel 9:4 reads: “The Great and Awesome God.” Ha’El HaGadol ve’HaNora. But he omits Gibbor. Nothing mighty. Daniel’s experience precluded him from praising God’s might as Moses had.

In the next generation, the Members of the Great Assembly – i.e. Nehemiah and friends, as noted above – “returned the crown to its resting place” by using the full Mosaic phrase: Ha’El HaGadol HaGibor ve’HaNorah, “the Great, Mighty, and Awesome God.” Nehemiah rebutted his predecessors: Daniel failed to see that God’s might is expressed by showing patience with the wicked, not destroying them all at once. And Jeremiah failed to see that God’s awesomeness is manifest in the survival of the tiny people Israel in the face of stronger enemies.

At this point in the Talmud, it looks as though Nehemiah is Moses’ true disciple, and the religious hero of our story, the one who knew how to detect divine grandeur even in a dark world, and to pray appropriately. That’s at least half true.

But there is one more line in the passage that I find most tremendously inspiring. The Talmud asks: How could those other prophets have done that? Where did Jeremiah and Daniel find the chutzpah to dissent against the Torah and refuse to say the prayer Moses instituted?

Said R. Eleazar: They knew that Hashem is honest and they could not lie. In this sense, Jeremiah and Daniel are also spiritual heroes, whose prayer is a profoundly sincere expression of their hearts. You can only come before God with your own heart and soul, not a fictional version of yourself.

Yes, the siddur we share comes from Moses, so to speak. As a community, “we” say the words we inherit. But sometimes there are expressions we cannot make. At such moments, like Jeremiah and Daniel, we should feel empowered to be a little idiosyncratic, omitting what we cannot say with integrity – and perhaps adding other elements, from time to time.

When you daven, be honest to God.