We are discussing Zimun today, the communal form of Grace after Meals, and the Talmud wishes to know the source for this practice. It finds two complementary sources, and, for a change, sees no reason to choose one over the other:
“Make God great with me, and we will exalt his name together.” (Ps.34:4)
“When I call in the name of the Lord, let us give greatness to our God” (Deut. 32:3)
The words are so commonplace to us – particularly if I’d quoted the Hebrew – that we rarely stop to think about what a strange concept they express: the idea that man (and woman) should be able to add to God’s greatness, to somehow make him bigger, more awe inspiring. This might be particularly on our minds as we go into Rosh Hashana, the days on which we are charged with establishing and restoring God’s Greatness and Kingship.
Surely God is self-sufficient, beyond our help? We might recognise or discover his greatness, that would make sense. But to create that greatness, to take part in the magnification of His Being, surely that is outrageous, anthropocentric audacity gone mad?
In a word, no. There is a sense in which one aspect of God, is unmoved, untouched, unaffected by anything we might do, say or think. But that is perhaps not the aspect we are genuinely interested in.
The aspect of God which plays a part in our lives, the ways in which He might move and affect us, is very much given to the hands of mankind. He, in a sense, is entirely at our mercy.
‘God’ is a word, the meaning and significance we give to it, the way we flesh out the concept, this is largely up to us, it is a function of our thoughts and reflections.
It is possible that ‘God’ stays small, that it remains the trivial Heavenly Bearded One that we learnt about as children, the scorekeeper of our moral activities, the One who issues us with strange and incomprehensible commandments. The ‘God’ of 5 year olds is great, if you are 5 years old.
But as we grow up, ‘God’ needs to grow with us, it needs to becomes something more profound, something more connected with our powerful intuitions about what is meaningful and significant in life, with Truth, Justice, Love and Compassion. This ‘God’ acts in our lives, there is a deep level in which it shapes our thoughts and actions, in which it can radically change the course of history. To imagine the world differently is to live by a vision, and this vision is powered and fuelled by our sense of what is right and beautiful, by the greatest possibilities we dare to foresee in the world.
This is an aspect of a more grown up ‘God’, and it is this aspect which depends on us for Its greatness. This happens in two ways. It requires the full powers of our intellect, of our creativity and imagination, to fathom and perceive the possibilities that ‘God’ represents. Every unique situation demands fresh effort as we feel our way to a sense of the just and compassionate way to respond and to act, to the ‘God-worthy’ course of action.
In a world that is sometimes cynical, that seems to want to surrender to a fateful economic or genetic determinism, that certainly gives us plenty of reason to be pessimistic, it is hard to keep faith that things could actually be different, that mankind, with the help of God, might shape a more perfect world. It takes all of our will to resist this and all of our memory to cling to that glimpse of an improved world we once knew.
Once we can see this greater possibility for ‘God’, The other sense in which we make God larger, greater, more magnified, is through the space we allow these considerations in our lives, through the emotional and intellectual import we ascribe to them.
This is a constant struggle, the whole corpus of our ritual and practice attempts to help us with this. But there are a few days a year which we set aside especially for them, and they are about to begin.
On Rosh Hashana, as we begin the new year, we dedicate two days to making God great, to considering Him as our King, as the most powerful force in our lives, as something worthy of our awe and respect. We work to limit our arrogance, our omnipotence, our narcissistic ego and to embrace a spirit of openness and otherness, and to re-connect with an idealism that we all too easily lose.
It really is in our hands, God will always be there, but ‘God’ is forever in danger of becoming empty, lifeless or simply ignored and forgotten. If we cannot lift our eyes and see something better, if we are too busy or exhausted to make the effort, too hurt or broken to try once more, then ‘God’ really will wither and die. Nietzsche will be right, it will be us who will have killed Him, it is our hands that will be bloodied by His demise.
It seems paradoxically apposite to go into Rosh Hashana with the words of Nietzsche, with his prophecy as to what happens when we fail to make ‘God’ great, to keep ‘God’ alive:
God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!
How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? (The Gay Science 125)
Judaism, and all ‘good religion’, is alert to the possibility that we talk about ‘God’ but fail to keep God alive, that our spirits and imaginations become deadened to Its call. For that reason we install two days a year to resurrecting His Reign, to magnifying his Memory, to enlarging his Greatness.
When we pray for life rather than death, we are praying for the life of ‘God’ as much for our own lives, we are becoming conscious of the sense in which neither can live without the other, of the ways that they nourish, fuel and sustain each other.
May our prayers be fluent in our mouths, may they rise to the awesome and lofty tasks before us, and may they be effective in sculpting space for God in our lives, in restoring ‘God’ to the life and place worthy of it. May our year be full and blessed, may our lives be touched and lifted by the Grace of a freshly restored ‘God’.