Kingdom Without a King

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First thing in the morning, I like to take a 3-block walk to the Grind Café and Gallery on Main Street at King Edward Avenue. Once I’m there, I like to sit near the window and watch Main Street before it’s fully woken up. There’s a little patch of sky I can see, right over Locus restaurant, and its color forecasts the day: blue or grey.

If I’m lucky, I get 15 quiet minutes to read and write and reflect and, sometimes, to cry. The Grind is a kind of chapel for me. It’s like a schule, a synagogue, because it’s a neighborhood, and it’s a microcosm, which means, literally, a little universe. And a lot of prayer happens there.

There’s the quiet man who comes every day with two parrots, one on each shoulder; the toddler who shrieks with delight at each passing truck; the Friday Or Shalom Men’s Torah study in the back; and the owners, Michelle and Jay, who make every customer feel welcomed and honored.

There is the older gentleman who used to sit outside with his very shy dog. When I didn’t see either of them for many months, I thought maybe the bad weather kept them home. Finally, one day the man came alone and I asked him, “How is your dog?” Tears exploded from his face, and all he could choke out was, “It was horrible.” And all I could say was, “You must really miss her.”

One day, we – that is, the Grind morning community — noticed a commotion across the street in front of Locus restaurant. It seemed to involve three dogs and four people. We figured out that one of the dogs had bitten one of the people. But before any of us could cross the street to help, a very dignified man with a very dignified golden retriever had appeared. They took charge of the situation. The man spoke with each of the people. The golden retriever spoke with each of the dogs. (I am not making this up.) Then the man and the golden retriever escorted the injured woman and her Chihuahua home. They appeared; they helped; they left, like messengers from a higher order.

And it happened in front of Locus restaurant. “Locus” is Latin for “the place.” This is the place. This is the microcosm. If God is King, this is the Kingdom. And this is where I come to pray.

God’s Kingdom: this is an easy metaphor to wrap our minds around. God’s Kingdom, where we are all citizens, we all pay our taxes, and we all receive our benefits, but the government allocations are not always fair. So the private sector, you and me, have to pick up the slack. We reach across communication differences, we comfort the bereaved, we take charge when others are confused.

On Rosh Hashanah, our liturgy teaches, we crown God as King. But this is a more difficult metaphor.

A metaphor compares two things that not really alike. So when we meet a strange metaphor, we pause and think about the two things that are compared. In the process, we may learn about both things.

Our usual approach would be to try to think about the ways in which the two things are alike. So we might ask: How is God like a King?

But, say our sages, this approach is backwards.

When we crown “God as King,” we are declaring that we owe allegiance to NO earthly king. That we are subjects of the King who is NOT a king. That our highest principle is different from what any earthly king represents.

So when we crown “God as King,” we are supposed to think about how God is NOT like a king.

When you go about this way, the metaphor seems pretty obvious to me.

When I picture a king, I picture a richly dressed person, sitting on a throne. When I picture God, I picture a buzzing energy that animates everything.

A king amasses material wealth. God’s energy extends throughout the world, so God doesn’t need any wealth.

A king competes with peers. God has no peers, and nothing has ever overridden the human quest to reach for spiritual meaning.

You can influence a king by sending aristocrats in the king’s court to negotiate for you. But with God, as our sages teach, rachamana liba b’ai, communication is heart to heart.

When I crown God as King on Rosh Hashanah, I mean that a divine energy uniting all life fills the world and calls my deepest heart of hearts to reach out. I pledge to discover the richness in this heart, and to bring those riches to daily life in the kingdom. I make this pledge knowing that, as I look into my heart, I may not discover what I expect.

Jewish philosopher Oliver Leaman says that religious language doesn’t work the way ordinary language works. With religious language, ordinary words are used in extraordinary, even strange ways. Religious language invites us to pause and pay attention. It invites us to enter into the gap between the words and our experience, to try to stretch our thoughts and feelings across the distance, and, in the process, to clarify where we stand spiritually. In other words, wondering “what the heck does this mean?” is itself a religious experience.

This Rosh Hashanah: enter the microcosm, the chapel, the kingdom of wonder.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Image: www.madore.org. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on August 25, 2013

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