At the heart of the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the Rulership of God, King or Sovereign (as identified in our new Mahzor) of all Kings/Sovereigns. To be Sovereign of all sovereigns is to indicate that whatever human rulers we have, they are not God! In accepting that parameter, we are given guidelines of how a ruler is to lead, and it is different and more enlightened than most sovereigns we can identify in human history.
One clue is the mandate in the book of Deuteronomy that if and when Israel is to choose a king (remember, as great as Moses was, he was not king, but partner in service with God), he is not to be focused on his own interests or the allure of power. Most significantly he is to write his own Torah and to see that he reviews it with the people on a yearly basis. Such accountability is only the beginning of what we learn when we turn to the Sovereign of all sovereigns as our ultimate role model of leadership.
Unlike earthly rulers, God accommodates all subjects and their inclinations to such a degree as to allow people to choose whether or not God even exists, let alone imposes on them in the kinds of ways human rulers do.
During the Days of Awe, I will be focusing on the insights and teachings of Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the second generation (following on the leadership of his father, Rabbi David Hartman) head of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; it is an Orthodox-based school for rabbis and students that teaches inclusion of all Jewish backgrounds with a goal of developing insights that can move Israel closer to peace in the Middle East.
Hartman’s book has a title that sounds heretical yet posits values of God that are at the core of Jewish purpose and meaning in its highest sense: Putting God Second. The assertion of the book is that God’s mandate is for us to focus on blessings and wellness and fairness and ethical behavior in all aspects of life that benefits people. We are to do that as a higher priority than whatever focus and honor we might think we are obligated to do in terms of honoring and worshiping our Creator.
Hartman maintains that the problems people have with connecting with God are not inherent with God but with how religious leaders interpret our responsibility to God. In so many cases, both in Judaism and in virtually all religious traditions, the religious leadership act “holier than thou” in their assumption that their tradition’s way is what God desires and that their path is the true one.
The controversial title, Putting God Second, reflects Hartman’s premise that God did not put us in this world to glorify God but to use all our abilities to bring ethical behavior into the world of humankind and to focus on doing right and well with people of all backgrounds and traditions. Instead of pitting one tradition or religion against another, in presuming one is more God’s will than another, it is about understanding that Shalom reveals a world where all the different parts fit together in a wholeness that unifies God.
It is only by putting God second and the needs of humanity first that paradoxically God is honored in the way God anticipates and desires in having created this physical realm. That is the meaning of our reading the words of Isaiah on Yom Kippur day emphasizing that more important than the rituals of prayer and fasting are the purpose behind doing so: to remember to help people that are vulnerable in feeding, clothing and sheltering them.
These insights that are at the heart of the Days of Awe both allow us to better appreciate what it means to embrace God as Sovereign of all sovereigns and also to value the timing of such teachings given the election that awaits us next month. The purpose of our teachings is to remind us to elect people that will more closely reflect God’s modelling of leadership: putting others first and using their power to be of benefit to all who live in the society that they rule.
Given how dysfunctional government has become, both on a national (and international) level, as well as in many local communities, these are days to reflect on the meaning of our lives and the choices we make. We must choose between pursuit of self-interest and what measures we can take to benefit others. Hartman’s insights teach God’s priorities for us to transform how we think in terms of responsibility and decisions we make in terms of benefitting others.
I look forward to exploring with you the ramifications of Putting God Second in a world where human rulers all too often put themselves, and their adherents, first, to the detriment of all others that they rule.