In this week’s parashah Moshe describes Hashem as “… haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah — the G-d, the Great, the A-lmighty, and the Awesome …”. These words were incorporated by the Anshei Kinesses Hagedolah into the opening of the Shemoneh Esrei.
The same phrase is also found at the conclusion of the poem “Nishmas”. There, the poet goes even further and gives each one an explanatory phrase. This yields the strange result that the very same poem that says that “even if our mouths were filled of poetry like the sea, and our tongues – joy, like the many waves, and our lips – praise like the expanses of sky … we would still not be sufficient to praise you”, this same poem then praises G-d in four words!
A student who lead the congregation as Chazan before the tanna Rabbi Chanina once embellished on these four simple adjectives. After he was finished, Rabbi Chanina corrected him, “Have you finished all possible praise of your Master?” No list of complements could completely describe Hashem. Had Moshe not spoken these words, and Hashem not told him to write them into the Torah, we would not have the chutzpah to use these four. (Berakhos 33b)
According to the Vilna Gaon, “haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah” was not only included in the first berakhah of the Shemoneh Esrei, but it is the basis for the structure of the rest of the berakhah too.
To the Vilna Gaon, these four names of G-d form a progression. They summarize how man approaches G-d.
Kel means not only G-d but judge or legislator. To be HaKel, THE Legislator, means that Hashem rules over the entire universe, His authority is all-inclusive.
Rabbi Yochanan (Megilah 31a) said, “Where ever you find G-d’s greatness, that is where you find His humility”. Perhaps we can understand this apparent paradox by comparing G-d’s properties to those of humans. Schools have a problem of overcrowding. There are just so many students a teacher can adequately pay attention to. As the number of students grows, each one can only get less and less attention. Not so Hashem. His infinity is not just that He is a “Kel“, G-d over all, but also “Gadol“, great enough to give personal attention to each person.
HaGibor. We said already that Hashem Legislates to all, and that He is not limited to looking only at the universal picture, but can pay attention to each and every one of us. The combination of these two facts yields “HaGibor“. G-d has the power and uses it to guide each of us in our daily lives.
VehaNorah. There are two types of Divine intervention, the behind-the-scenes subtle activity, that the non-believer dismisses as mere luck, and the flashy miracle that defies the law of nature. While the former is more common, it is the miracle that inspires awe.
These thoughts are elaborated twice in the berakhah, once before the quote of the pasuk, and once after.
Baruch. Chazal write often that “‘berakhah‘ is a term of increase”. To call G-d “blessed” means that He is limitless. This is HaKel.
Ata. It is incredible that man has the gall to talk to G-d, to refer to the Creator as “You”. What grants us that power? HaGadol, He is big enough to attend to each of us.
Elokeinu. The Vilna Gaon teaches that this corresponds to “HaGibor“. Elokeinu, our G-d, is different than HaKel, The G-d. There is a possessiveness, this might and authority of HaKel doesn’t only apply to the big picture, but he guides each of us, our fates and destinies.
Elokei Avoseinu. In our lives, Hashem’s intervention is subtle. However, for our forefathers He performed miracles. Whereas Elokeinu, our G-d, refers to Hashem’s constant guiding of history, Elokei Avoseinu, G-d of our Fathers, asserts that the same One can work outside of the laws of nature. In order to work toward the day when we too will merit an age of miracles, we next recall each forefather, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, by name, to recall and resolve to emulate their character strengths.
Next we repeat the four names of Hashem from this week’s parashah, and then elaborate on the themes in a different variation.
HaKel. This is elaborated as “Kel Elyon“, G-d above all. Again, we declare that He commands everything.
HaGadol. As we said earlier, this means that He not only looks at the universe as a whole, but pays attention to each and every one of us. This is why “gomel chassadim tovim”, Hashem supports us through His kindness.
HaGibor. The consequence of being the G-d above all, and able to relate to the individual is that this means He touches each of our lives. The Vilna Gaon translates “konei” in our context from the root of “litakein”, to fix. Konei hakol, Hashem fixes all, heals the sick, raises the downtrodden and the depressed.
VihaNorah. “Zokheir chasdei avos“. Hashem remembers how our fathers went beyond the call of obligation. We are only “benei beneihem“, the children of their children, twice removed from their stature. But whatever of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov we carry, may it be enough that we too merit miraculous intervention, that Hashem bring us our redeemer.