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 explanetory 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. (Brachos 33b)
According to the Vilna Gaon, “haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah” is not only included in the first brachah of the Shemoneh Esrei, but it is the basis for the structure of the rest of the brachah too.
To the Vilna Gaon, these four names of G-d form a progression. They summarise 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.
VihaNorah. 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 brachah, once before the quote of the pasuk, and once after. They provide the structure for the entire blessing.
Baruch. Chazal write often that “‘brachah‘ is a term of increase”. The relationship between the idea of “increase” and G-d is unclear. We can’t really be claiming that G-d is missing something, and requires, increase — can we?
One resolution, in line with the Gaon’s approach to the b’rachah as a whole, is to say that it is a statement of fact; we are saying “You are maximally increased”. This is “haKel“.
A second is to define the word as, “You are the Source of all increase”; a statement that we recognize that all of our blessings come from G-d.
Third, Rabbiner Hirsch’s approach, is to focus on the one thing we can contribute to G-d. Since He allows us to make free choices, by choosing to support Hashem’s goals we are adding our efforts to his. By this approach, “baruch” means “I commit myself and my resources to You”.
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.
Hashem, the tetragrammaton. Chazal note that this name of G-d is used in Tanach to refer to Him when his actions appear merciful to us. Alternatively, we can look at the root of the word. The word is normally seen as a contraction of “Yihyeh – Hoveh – Hayah” — “Will be, is and was”. A G-d who is above time. The Trancendent Deity. A third alternative is that of Rabbiner Hirsch’s who sees it as the causative form of “havah“, to exist. G-d who sustains our existence.
Pairing off each of these three with the commentary’s corresponding translation for “baruch”, we can render “Baruch Ata Hashem” in these three ways:
Ata Hashem. You are so trancendent, you even have the ability to be immanent. G-d is not too great to care about a single inhabitant of some uninteresting planet in some typical galaxy. No, because He IS great, because he IS above limitation, is why we can say “Ata“, “You”.
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.
Hashem Elokeinu. Two paradoxes. Our G-d, like Ata, reinforces the idea of an Immanent Deity.
But also, we unify the Merciful One with the G-d of Justice. As Nachum Ish Gamzu would say “Gam zu litovah“, “this too is for this best. Or in the words of his pupil, Rabbi Akiva, “All that G-d does, he does for the good.” All that G-d does is good. Some seems harsh and punishing, some is more obviously merciful. But it’s all one. The difference is in our perception, not in the One who acts.
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.
Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are seen as archtypes of three different types of divine service. The Maharal (Derech Hachaim on Avos 1:2) finds them to be the masters of Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim.
Elokei Avraham. G-d of this world, the world where people interact, feel hunger, pain. Where we need a society to support each other. The G-d who commanded us to be kind to each other.
Elokei Yitzchak. Yitzchak was otherworldly, nearly a sacrifice entirely to G-d. Elokei Yitzchak is the G-d of Avodah, of prayer and Temple service. G-d of our spiritual selves.
Elokei Yaakov. The G-d of the “whole man, who sat in tents” of study. Perfection of that third world between the spiritual and this one, the mind which must decide which is to be the source of inspiration, and which to be the means to get there.
When you say Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, v’Elokei Ya’akov, you not only acknowledge that this G-d that we relate to on these three different levels is one and the same, but also we commit ourselves to improve in all three pillars of our life.
Next we repeat the four names of Hashem, and then elaborate on the themes in a different variation.
Kel Elyon. This is an elaboration of “haKel”, G-d above all. Again, we declare that He commands everything. Even the other’s deities, the embodiments of nature, represent subjects to His Will.
Gomel Chassadim Tovim. Hashem supports us through His kindness. As we said, “haGadol” means that He not only looks at the universe as a whole, but that He also is “big” enough to pay attention to each and every one of us.
Gomel. To support, not just a single act of kindness, but like its root “gamal”, a camel, a continued source. Chassadim. Chessed, to go beyond the call of duty. Tovim. As we said above, ALL that he does is for the good, whether we can percieve that good or not.
ViKonei Hakol. 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 – HaGibor. 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.
“Konei” has two other meanings, to make or to acquire. These two meanings are related, for as R YB Soloveitchik zt”l teaches, the root of ownership is that people own what they make. From there, they barter or buy to transfer the ownership to others in exchange for ownership something they couldn’t make.
Hakol, THE all, in distinction to “kol”, all. “Hakol” should be translated as “the universe”, not as “everything”.
ViKonei Hakol can therefor also be rendered Owner or Maker of the universe.
Zocher chasdei avos. VihaNorah. Hashem remembers how our fathers went beyond the call of obligation. We are only “bnei bineihem”, 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.
Umeivi goel livnei vineihem. Umeivi — lehavi, to bring, not lishloach, to send.
Another thought that hit me is how aptly these words literally apply to my generation. Two generations before me, “chasdei avos” our ancestors were pushed beyond the call of duty, to sanctify G-d’s name in Aushwitz, Treblinka, Babi Yar and dozens of other infamous locations. Umeivi go’el livnei vineihem. May Hashem bring the redeemer to us, their children’s children.
Lima’an sh’mo, for the sake of His name. Not for our sake. G-d, don’t wait for us to merit it, to earn the redemption. For your sake. “Sheim”, name, is from the same root as “sham”, there. Both are references to another thing. The Jewish People are one of G-d’s names. People see us as Your People. Redeem us to redeem your name, so that people will think highly of the ideals of ethical monotheism.
Bi’ahavah. With love. Maimonides defines the term as a perception of one’s unity with the beloved. In redeeming us “lima’an sh’mo”, for the sake of His name, G-d shows that we are His and He is ours.
Melech. King. Not a “moshel” a dictator, but one who rules with the support of His people. “Ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim — for G-d has the Kingship, but he is a dictator over the nations”. Until the day that they accept Hashem’s rule, “And G-d will be King over the entire land, in that day He and His name will be one/unique”.
Ozer. Helper. Beyond being just a king, one who organizes society, G-d also helps the individual.
Umoshia. Savior, one who gets us out of trouble, even when we are not putting in effort for Hashem to be considered a helper.
Umagein. Even further, a sheild, one who prevents the trouble to begin with.
Although the Gaon doesn’t say so, the “Melech Ozer uMoshia uMagein” progression matches his approach to “haKel haGadol haGibor viHanorah”. Melech, like keil, is a legislator who takes the global view. Ozer implies the one-on-one of haGadol. uMoshia parallels His intervention in our lives, in contrast to uMagein, how he protects those who go beyond the call of duty on His behalf.
Baruch ata Hashem…. As above.
Magein Avraham. Protector of Abraham, the one who mastered the idea that this world is the tool, not the goal. That we are in this imperfect world together to help eachother, and to perfect it.
Abraham would tell his guests, “Don’t thank me, thank the Creator of heaven and earth, who is truly the one who gave you this food.” This is the Protector of Abraham.