On Rosh Hashanah Irwin Kula Weaves Layers of Meaning…
Malhuyot, Zihronot and Shofarot
Sometimes, when we get used to liturgy, it becomes mechanical. We say the words, we may even be comforted by their familiarity, but we do not necessarily stop to ponder the models and layers of meaning they may evoke. And yet, when we do unpack them we can discover grand designs in the rabbi’s work. And, from our 21st century perspective, we can discover wisdom with as much meaning today as when the siddur was created.
This past Rosh Hashanah, Irwin examined the dynamics of the system defined by the concepts of Malhuyot, Zihronot, and Shofarot, the core themes of the Rosh Hashanah musaf service (Prayer Book press pages 303-327 if you have the Mahzor) Preceded by the communal musical experience of V’Ye-Etayu, a medieval version of a positive future, to Adonai Sefatai Tiftach, in which we ask for the capacity for prayer; the emotionally high setting was perfect, noted Irwin, to delve into what this trilogy attempts to do.
Irwin noted from the beginning that his “take” on these verses might be different than what many of us are used to, as many people assume this section is about “coronating” the “king”. So one of the issues, of course, is about finding equivalents in our culture to whatever it was the image of “kingdom” evoked when the verses were selected. Instead of the “power dynamics” of king and servants, we might think in terms of a kind of “meaning dynamics”, he suggested.
Irwin suggests that Malhuyot is not so much about coronating a king in some anthropomorphic heaven as about imagining a realm, a uni-verse, about the oneness of everything. Malhuyot, Zihrnonot and Shofarot are structurally configured with 10 verses each (3 each from Torah, writings and prophets, and an additional verse) to make an argument for a theme. And the last verse for Malhuyot, the Shma, has nothing to do with kings. Instead it is about Oneness.
The Shma tells us that everything is coherent, that there is a deep vision and context. As the Zohar suggests, whenever we see “Melech” (king) we can read it as hakol—or everything. Hakol can be appreciated by thinking how every single individual, thought, experience, and emotion is interrelated in some kind of tapestry.
Most of us have known this yearning for a life that hangs together. That feeling, projected onto the cosmos, is Malhuyot.
The first verse of Malhuyot comes from the song of the sea, when the people saw the Egyptians and they saw God. They made a leap from a literal seeing to a deeper seeing. Placing events in a larger context is the key to establishing the realm of Malhuyot.
Robert Wuthnow, head of religion at Princeton, in his book called “Rediscovering the Sacred” offers the idea of “spheres of relevance”. Wuthnow says that religion depends on how many spheres of relevance you can create. For example, you can cook chicken soup; but if you cook chicken soup for your family with your grandmother’s recipe with some extra for the elderly neighbor down the hall, each of these additional associations makes the act of cooking more powerful/meaningful. Eventually, increasing the spheres of relevance, cooking the soup becomes a metaphor for feeding the entire world.
Malhuyot is about establishing those connections—and the first time the Jewish people made that connection was at the sea. They see “x”, noted Irwin—and they also see “x plus”.
The next verse, which says how there is “no iniquity seen in Jacob, nor any perverseness in Israel…” comes from the story of Balaam. Hired to curse the Jews by King Balak of Moab, he is unable to and instead blesses them.
So right away, notes Irwin, the rabbis are acknowledging that it can be difficult to constitute Malhut. People like Balak can get in the way. There are people out there who want to break down the connections, who say the connections are naive. Things happen, such as illness. But no one outside of you can undermine your capacity to create malhuyot. The question to be asked is how to incorporate that reality into malchuyot, not to leave it outside.
The next verse, which talks about how the “Lord was enthroned as Sovereign in Jeshurun…” is from Deuteronomy, from Moses’ blessing before he dies. At first glance, this type of language is challenging, particularly to us as Americans. The deeper message, Irwin suggested, however, is that when you gather in the land, when everyone gathers together, that there is the possibility of malhuyot. There is no possibility of malhuyot individually. In fact, the kind of “peak” experience that an individual might experience on their own, unsupported by anyone else, would be idiosyncratic, possibly bordering on psychotic.
The idea that establishing the realm is communal goes all the way back to the song of the sea. In the Hebrew, we read that “they” saw, (vyiru)—not that he or she saw. Similarly, in our own singing before the discussion we were all part of a group. We didn’t lose our individuality, but we became part of a context, part of a larger whole.
There is fear involved with this, Irwin noted. As human beings, at the same time we create the communal experience we’re also afraid of it. Whether it’s medieval malhuyot or post-modern malhuyot, we are afraid of losing our identities.
This paradox—that you can’t find yourself until you establish malhuyot yet when you establish it with a group of people, there is the potential to lose yourself—means that trust in the establishment of malhuyot is incredibly important. It is the dance between self and merging—another way of talking about the dance of intimacy. As Irwin noted, one of the reasons we merge our sexual and religious language is that, in intimacy, the borders between self and other dissolve. In the moment of dissolution of self, when the boundaries get so permeable that you’re not conscious of it, there is fear and a stepping or pulling back. Both the coming together and the separation are equally central components of the human experience.
To summarize malhyot: You establish the kingdom/realm/reality through making the connections. You do it within a group. Between you and the group there is always a dance between your individual constructions and the constructions of the group.
Going down a few verses, we come to a verse from a psalm that says “You, o Lord, are Sovereign… You established a world that stands firm.” This psalm, noted Irwin, traditionally is recited on Friday, the sixth day of creation. On the sixth day, people were created. There is no context, in other words, no whole vision, until people are present. This is further underscored by the passage from Isaiah which says there is no God, so to speak, until we witness God.
In other words, we have both a world we construct and a world with firm reality. This is the paradox. The malhuyot is always there, but it only reveals itself as human beings construct it. At the same time, because it IS there, we human beings can’t construct anything we want. There is a soft correspondence with reality.
Some New Age voices, note Irwin, might suggest our consciousness creates our reality. That is only a half truth, he says. In this Jewish take, reality is there, but your consciousness makes all the difference in unveiling it. In other words, you can’t get lost in a kind of nirvana bliss of your own. You can’t be independent of the groups establishing the spheres of relevance; the frameworks of meaning.
Zihronot means memory. It is the vehicle through which we establish Malhuyot because in Malhuyot every single act is potentially connected to everything. There is no act you do that’s not memorable. What you are at any moment is an ever changing product of what you are choosing to remember from the myriad of experiences you have had. A human being, in other words, is not a noun, but a verb. We are human becomings. As Irwin put it, there is no “Irwin, there is Irwining”…there is no Neesa, there is Neesaing.”
How does this work? As events happen, they get incorporated into our memory. As they get incorporated into our memory, the events change the past and the future. Obviously, it’s not possible to remember everything, so establishing Malhuyot is a conscious endeavor. You have to make the connections, selecting what you will remember and what you will forget. In the text (p 315) verses are chosen to jog God’s memory—a theological version of the anthropology involved.
First, we see a verse about God remembering Noah; about remembering the promise to Noah that no matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong, the content of Malhuyot, the content of the whole, will be remembered. This recognizes that we have to believe the world is safe, even though we may not experience it that way. We have to approach the world from a sense that the covenant does hold the world together. These are the memories we need to keep alive and we all have many in our personal lives. Unfortunately, we tend to let the memories of our world falling apart overcome our memories of Malhuyot.
In our own experience, we probably each spend more time this year remembering the bad things that happen to us than the good. It is precisely this choice that Zihronot challenges. The worship service itself provides an alternative. Just prior to reciting these verses, we danced and sang, establishing communal joy. But what happens to our bad memories? In that moment of communal joy they don’t go away—instead they get trumped.
The next verse in Zihronot is from Exodus, reminding God how God heard our groaning under Egyptian bondage, and remembered the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is followed by a verse from the blessing and curse section at the end of Leviticus. These verses reinforce the security of the Covenant despite the bad things that happen to us. Irwin likened this to moments we have with our loved ones, moments of unconditional love, which if we can remember them, mitigate the pain of the inevitable difficult times in life. What you remember makes all the difference in the world you establish. Memories of chesed, unconditional love, of promises fulfilled, create a life affirming malhuyot.
The seventh verse, recited in Zihronot, makes the most radical claim of all. The prophet Jeremiah reminds God to remember the beautiful and loving time of the children of Israel wandering in the desert, when our relationship with God was as “a wedding time”. Of course, a cursory read of the book of Bamidbar, Numbers, shows that the wilderness experience was filled with complaints, disappointments, and in the end, a severe punishment upon the entire generation that left Egypt. A loving wedding time!? Jeremiah here is showing that memory is profoundly malleable. As time passes, we look back and see our own life differently than we saw it as it was happening. Our view of our future literally changes our past. This is precisely our power to reframe and reinterpret our own lives. Yet, at the same time there is this power, we find the word “covenant” in almost every verse, again pointing out the ongoing paradox of power with communal responsibility.
When we get to shofarot, we have established that there is a frame and a wholeness—malhuyot. We have established that it is our job to establish malhuyot through the act of memory. We’ve established that malhuyot is completely ours to construct even though it exists independently of us—the paradox. And we’ve established that the vehicle to establish malhuyot is our memories, because our every act is important.
At this point, we haven’t yet talked about acting. We’ve only talked about establishing the malhuyot psychologically and spiritually through the act of memory.
In Shofarot, all the verses are from the Mt. Sinai story. At Sinai, we get a list of responsibilities.
This leads to another view of the paradox. The only way you can firmly establish the unconditional love that you invoke through your memory that creates malhuyot is by living up to that unconditional love. The unconditional love is given no matter what, but you can’t fully access and reveal unconditional love unless you live up to it.
In the end, the greatest gift we have been given, the gift that we ultimately have no control over, is life—existence itself. How do we live in response to that gift?
The Sinai covenant is our response. We live a life of Mitzvah, a life of indebtedness. And without living that responsibility there is no way to feel the unconditional love that allows you to establish malhuyot.
This differs from some New Age teaching which says that you can get there simply by going inside and from Christianity that tends to valence grace over works. Its not that one doesn’t go inside and its not that chesed isn’t central, but you can’t actually access it until you live in response to it.
Irwin noted the many contributions Aitz Hayim members make to the community and how, when people do mitzvot and live in light of some kind of obligation, that they actually feel the unconditional love we establish with Zichronot. And when we feel that unconditional love that comes through obligation, we have, in turn, created Malhuyot.
This is what Rosh Hashanah and Jewish life are about. The shofar blows to wake us up to this, to our responsibility to construct the Malhut through our actions. When that occurs, as in the words of Isaiah and Zechariah—“On that day, a great Shofar will be sounded….” There will be redemption. Redemption is Malhuyot realized.
Perhaps, we can carry the sounds of the Shofar, the reminder, with us and listen to it inside ourselves through the year…