Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Howard: My question is about the Alenu prayer we as Jews recite 3 times daily:
It is our obligation to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Creator of the Beginning: that He has not made us like the nations of the lands, and has not positioned us like the families of Earth; that He has not assigned our portion like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitudes. For they prostrate themselves to vanity and nothingness, and pray to a god that cannot deliver. But we bow, prostrate ourselves, and offer thanks before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, Who spreads the heavens, and establishes Earth, and the seat of His glory is in heaven above, and the abode of His splendor is in the loftiest heights. He is our God, there is nothing else. Our King is true, there exists nothing else but Him. As it is written in His Torah, “And You shall know this day and place on your heart that Adonoy is God in the heavens above and upon Earth below, there is nothing else.”
Alenu’s first paragraph ends citing a Torah verse. Does this mean we bow to God only because Torah says He is the creator? Rather, shouldn’t the imperative to bow to God (serve Him) be the “natural reality” of God being Creator, regardless of God writing a Torah verse?
Rabbi: Alenu says about other nations, “They pray to a god that cannot deliver.” Rabbi Israel Chait asked why we don’t counter that by saying, “We pray to a God who does deliver!” Rabbi Chait answered that Alenu depicts the flaw of other nations: they wrongly pray for deliverance—salvation—a god that serves them, that saves them.
Praising God only for what “He can do for me” compromises God’s greatness. He was great long before He created man! That is the message of Adon Olam: “The Master of the world who reigned before all He formed.” Rabbi Chait asked on this phrase, “How can God reign without a kingdom yet in existence?” He explained this refers to God’s unity: “God reigning before all He formed means to reject other gods…He was then alone before all else.” This precludes other gods.
Returning to other nations, God’s greatness is not contingent upon what He does for man, as other religions imagine, and selfishly seek. Man should not seek God for His capacity to cater to man; that is a mediocre view of God. In contrast to other religions, Jews—Bible followers—don’t seek personal benefit (salvation). Rather, we seek to function as God intended: to engage our intellects, to perceive and relate to reality, “The Holy One blessed is He, Who spreads the heavens, and establishes Earth.” Thus, we don’t pray for salvation as do others, but we relate to reality, and reality is that there exits a Creator.
If so, why does Alenu need to cite a Torah verse? Shouldn’t the imperative to relate to God be the “natural reality” of God as Creator, regardless of a Torah verse? Howard, this is your question.
What is the message of Alenu?
“Alenu” means “it is upon us”—meaning the Jew has a role distinct from others. We are no different in human design, but in obligation we are, as we must adhere to Torah and teach the world. “Alenu”—this role is “upon us.” While all others are obligated only in the 7 Noahide Laws.
God created the universe for all to study, but for the Jew, 613 Bible laws are an additional obligation. A Torah verse in Alenu is needed to express this obligation. Torah validates God’s will for man. Without a Torah verse, we can still follow reality. But with a Torah verse, we now display that our actions as Jews are to be subservient to the Creator’s will. This is why Alenu concludes with a Torah verse, “And You shall know this day and take into Your heart…” Torah is God’s will and command for the Jew alone. Alenu teaches us that we don’t only follow reality, but we do so as this is the Creator’s will for the Jew.
Reality teaches a Creator exists; nothing can create itself. The universe’s wisdom demands a brilliant Planner. But subservience to God cannot be perceived by studying the universe. We find no indication in the universe that man is to recognize God as an authority and obey Him…for there are no commands embedded in nature. We see God’s brilliance in every inch of His creations, but in them we do not see an authoritative relationship between God and man. In creation, we don’t see God expressed as an “authority,” or man as His “servant.” Talmud states God gave Adam one prohibition: idolatry (Sanhedrin 56b). This means Adam could not have recognized God as an authority by studying the universe alone: a command was required to create the relationship of authority and servant. Only through God’s “command” was Adam introduced to this relationship. Now we must understand why this relationship of God as authority and man as servant is crucial to our human existence.
The universe is stupendous…praise is due to God. That’s how Alenu commences. But aside from praising God and witnessing brilliance in the physical world, there is an entirely different world of “human perfection.” Man misses the mark if he views the universe as only to reflect God’s greatness in creation, and fails to grasp that Earth also exists for man to perfect himself…straddling not only concepts of God, but morality too.
Creation lacks instruction for human perfection. “God’s Torah is perfect” (Psalms 19:8). Saadia Gaon (Ibid.) said, “This verse is missing the words ‘It said.’” Meaning, the verse should read as follows: “It (the sun) said that God’s Torah is perfect.” In other words, the physical world (sun) attests to the greater perfection of Torah, which is lacking in the physical world. How is it lacking? The physical universe verse does not offer man instruction on morality, character refinement, equality, kindness, justice, and a host of other ideals crucial to human perfection. Only Torah offers laws and character examples that lead to such human perfection. That’s how Torah is perfect, and where the universe falls short.
Now we understand why this relationship of God as authority and man as servant is crucial to our human existence. Without God’s Torah commands, man forfeits God’s intended human perfection only possible for most of mankind through Torah. Rare individuals—the patriarchs and matriarchs—were on the level to perfect themselves without Torah. That’s why God did not have to give Torah at first. But societies regressed, demanding a guide book.
“He has not made us like the nations of the lands, and has not positioned us like the families of Earth”
This means God differentiated the Jews with a Bible. Thus, we must cite a Torah verse in this blessing, as that is the core of what we bless, that we—not others—received a guide book.