The Amidah, the “standing prayer,” opens with a description of “the great, mighty and awesome God,” a direct quote from this week’s parsha, Ekev (Deut .10:17).
As with many biblical verses used in the siddur, the words are important due to the message they convey and because of where they are found within the biblical text. The larger context transmits additional theological beliefs and values.
Having said that, the context of our verse is: “So circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and takes no bribes, providing justice for the orphan and widow, loving the sojourner residing among you by giving them food and clothing. So you are to love those sojourners, for you yourselves were sojourners in Egypt” (Deut. 10: 16-19).
Not just a description of God, but a reminder of loyalty
The location of our verse within the Torah lets us know that we are talking about more than a description of God; we are also being reminded of our loyalty to God, and our responsibility to those with less power within our communities – the latter being one way we show our fidelity to God.
The placement of this verse at the beginning of the Amidah reminds us that when we approach God, we also need to be cognizant of our relationships and responsibilities to those around us.
But there is also another profound message and lesson that comes with our verse and explains why it is positioned at the opening of the Amidah. For that insight, we need to turn to a Talmudic discussion.
“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said (Yoma 69b): “Why were they called the Men of the Great Assembly? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. Moses had come and said, ‘the great, the mighty, and the awesome God’ (Deut. 10:17). Then Jeremiah came and said, ‘Aliens are carrying on in God’s temple; where then are God’s awesome deeds?’ Hence [when he prayed, Jeremiah] omitted [the word] ‘awesome’ [saying only] ‘the great and mighty God’” (Jeremiah 32:18).
Jeremiah changed the words of Moses because he had a different experience of God than Moses did.
The Talmud (Yoma 69b) continues with a similar example: “Daniel came and said: ‘Aliens are enslaving God’s children; where are God’s mighty deeds?’ Hence [Daniel] omitted the word ‘mighty’ when he prayed, [saying only] ‘The great and awesome God’” (Dan. 9:4).
Like Jeremiah, the prophet Daniel also changed Moses’ words because his familiarity with God was not equal to Moses’. Both of these examples model for us that simply mouthing the words of the tradition without believing them is not the correct path. Rather, we should believe what we say, especially to and about God.
Be that as it may, the Talmud (Yoma 69b) then takes a different direction: “But [the Men of the Great Assembly] came and said: ‘On the contrary, therein lie God’s mighty deeds that God suppresses God’s wrath, that God extends long-suffering to the wicked.’”
They first address Daniel, and in so doing teach a very deep lesson. We usually associate might with the use of power, strength, and force. The rabbis, in this instance, say the opposite.
Might can also be expressed by not utilizing one’s power, strength, and force.
A baseball team will never win a game by everyone only trying to hit home runs (long ball). Sacrifice bunting (small ball) etc., must also be utilized. Having the wisdom to know when a situation calls for one over the other is the best use of one’s might. The rabbis, knowing how easy it is to want to resort to force, go so far as to say (in Pirke Avot 4:1):
“Who is mighty? One who conquers his[/her] passions, as it is said (Prov 16:32): ‘One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and one who rules his[/her] spirit (is greater) than one who conquers a city.’”
Returning to our Talmudic discussion, the rabbis then turn to Jeremiah’s lack of feeling God’s awesomeness:
“Therein lie God’s awesome powers, for but for fear of God, how could our nation persist among the nations?” (Yoma 69b).
Rabbi David Hartman, in A Living Covenant: The innovative spirit in traditional Judaism, explains the rabbis’ thinking regarding these passages: “They were able to recognize the might and awesomeness of God in His ability to restrain Himself and not wrathfully strike down the oppressors of Israel… they saw their God now manifesting His power through ‘mighty’ patience and ‘awesome’ compassion. With this bold and ingenious reinterpretation, they shifted the focus of the notion of divine power from external victorious power to the inner power of God’s patience with human beings.”
The rabbis allow themselves the freedom, or the power, to expand the understanding of what words mean. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes, “In the final analysis, the difference between the two positions, that of Jeremiah and Daniel on the one hand, and that of the Men of the Great Assembly on the other, comes down to the difference between the literalist and the non-literalist.”
Each confronts realities that crash into the words they have been given by Moses. For the literalists, the elimination of certain words is how the text remains relevant and true, while for the non-literalists, audacious interpretation is the answer. While different in approaches, both utilize sincerity and frankness.
Both approaches, as we have seen, are found within the tradition; and while the rabbis endorse the more open non-literal position and interpretation of the text, they ask: “But how could sages [i.e. Jeremiah and Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: ‘Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be God, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to God’” (Yoma 69b).
In this closing of this Talmudic discussion, the final word on this matter, which often is the summing up message, the rabbis acknowledge that truth is found through integrity and honesty – the foundation stone of our theological quest. Gazing into the mirror of honesty is not always easy. As Gloria Steinem says, “The truth will set you free, but first it will p*** you off!”
The Amidah intentionally opens with the biblical verse “The great, mighty and awesome God” (Deut 10:17), knowing the full tapestry of biblical and rabbinic insights woven into its words. Wrapped in that tallit of discernment, we are then ready to approach God. ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.