The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Sing to me on Rosh Hashanah verses of kingship […] that I might be your king. (TB Rosh Hashanah 34b)
Leave metaphor, and walk with me. / Do you see traces of the moth in the light? (Darwish)
At an especially poignant moment during the Rosh Hashanah liturgy the ark is closed, revelation concealed. The congregation then whispers its rejection of the earthly melech basar-va-dam, the “kings of flesh and blood,” in deference to God, eternal sovereign. “!מלך אביון,” we read “wretched mortal king! He decays and descends to the grave, into sheol and beneath, he toils without satisfaction. How long will he reign?”
The ark is then reopened, and the shared voice of worship rises again to sing: “But the most high King — his power is forever, His glory is forever, His praise endures forever, forever will He reign.” The path of the nations is the temporal; our year begins in swearing allegiance to eternity.
It is known, or at least imagined well, that the Hasidim of the prewar era expressed a whispered disappointment among themselves following the destruction of the Russian Empire at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Such a suggestion should strike us as peculiar—keep in mind, after all, that the late Tsar Nicholas II was at best apathetic to the violence inflicted on Jewish communities in the Empire over the preceding decades. The grief of these mystics thus did not take as its object a particular man or his family but instead the institution of the tsardom itself, and what this institution contributed to the Jewish hermeneutical imagination. Hasidic discourse depends on using the image of the melech, the king, as a symbol of God—without an existing monarchy, they wondered, what hope is there for theology?
It’s a hyperbole, certainly, but one that invites an interesting thesis; namely: that the activity of metaphor-making and the construction of allegories (mashalim) is linked in the rabbinic idiom inextricably with the symbolic trappings of royalty (malchut) and the king (melech). This is obvious to anyone who has spent serious time as a student of chassidut, Hasidic philosophy, wherein the two terms (metaphor—monarch; mashal—melech) are linked so often as to constitute a psychic association, the evocation of one word triggering the meaning of the other. The word “king” in this canon serves in effect as a kind of rhetorical traffic sign; to read melech (or lemelech, “it is like a king”) means: we are now entering a metaphorical discourse, the literary space of the parable. Inversely, to read lemashal (“put allegorically…”) signals that one is entering the presence of royalty. It should hardly come as a surprise to us that metaphor as a form of speech is itself the invention of a king in Jewish thought, as it’s written: “until Solomon arose, there was no mashal” (Sh.R. 1:8). Metaphorical thinking as a product of noblesse oblige; a royal inheritance.
Scholarship on rabbinic midrash has hardly failed in making note of this association. David Stern in his Parables in Midrash (Harvard, 1991) identifies the midrashic invocation of “melech”—and more specifically of the phrase “king of flesh and blood”—as one of a “limited number of recognizable formulas that structure the mashal,” casting the king himself as a kind of stock figure formally signally the introduction of an allegory.
This work draws on the studies of Ignaz Ziegler, who at the beginning of the previous century cataloged nearly nine-hundred rabbinic allegories that rely on the imagery of the kings and kingship (the so-called Königsgleichnisse, king-parables). Ziegler’s central insight relied on the paradox of the rabbis’ reliance on the Roman imperial symbolism—a similar political-literary tension to the one described above in reference to the tsardom. Stern elaborates on this thesis by correcting Ziegler’s assumption that by virtue of their formal rootedness in the space of Greco-Roman life the king-parables must necessarily have derived from specific historical incidents. Rather, Stern insists, the prevalence of the melech figure in these parables should instead be read as the result of a mode of literary regularization known commonly as stereotyping. As a stereotype, the melech emerges as the central player in a symbolic vocabulary at the disposal of the midrashic author. It’s to this process of regularization that we can attribute both the king’s ubiquity and his symbolic utility as a formula signaling the structure of a mashal.
Our season, then, is one of kingship—royalty that begins in metaphor and then exceeds it. “Do you think it’s any coincidence that the Queen died during the month of Elul?” A teacher of mine provoked toward the end of a talmud class. “Suddenly the whole world is talking about monarchy.” It’s true that the coincidence has felt for many a bit uncanny; it was during this period leading up to Rosh Hashanah, after all, that we were meant to imagine our spiritual lives in special correspondence with God-as-King. This follows a teaching of the Schneur Zalman of Liadi, first rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, who in a well-known parable cast God’s attitude toward Israel in Elul as that of a melech basadeh, a “king in the field.” Removed from the signifiers of royalty, removed from palace decorum, the God-as-King makes Himself accessible to the petitioning subject. Such imagery grants the penitent Jew a degree of spiritual audacity: God waits for us during prayer with open arms and on shared, unpretentious grounds—all we have to do is run to him.
Rosh Hashanah, by contrast, is understood in the rabbinic imagination as the day when God’s sovereignty is reaffirmed in all its external signifiers. Retiring from the field, accompanied by his entourage of the righteous, the King returns to the palace where he is re-coronated, the distance between Himself and his subjects is restored. The quality of kingship, in other words, is a theological universal—the only variable in play in the spiritual dynamic is one of the King’s accessibility.
The logic of monarchy as captured in these respective parables (Elul as melech basadeh; Rosh Hashanah as coronation) is one of disclosure and concealment; the allegorical king, typically assumed to be remote and hidden, is revealed for a short time to his subjects. The dynamic is one that is native to monarchy—see a forthcoming essay of mine for more on the king’s veiledness—but one that finds precedent in theological discourse around God’s self-disclosure: just as it is the nature of God to conceal, reveal, and re-conceal Himself, so too does the sacred king (as a kind of sovereign imitatio dei) disclose himself to his subject in the imagined field before removing himself from the people’s sight again. This paralleled logic invites a certain confusion of metaphors: is the structure of earthly kingship simply mirroring the nature of divinity, or are we projecting a human institution onto God in an attempt at understanding His nature?
The coronation celebrated on Rosh Hashanah day in this sense represents the transcendence and abandonment of metaphor in deference to pure theological thinking. Typical of Jewish thought, however, to exceed metaphor here implies not the abandonment of our symbolic vocabulary but the renewed refusal to apply this imagery to its actual, terrestrial object. God in this sense remains “King,” but on the condition that the kingship of earthly monarchy is dismissed as an illusion. Graduating from metaphor to pure theology here requires a degree of acosmism, a rejection of material reality; we move, thus, from “God is [by way of parable] like a king” in Elul to “God is the only King” on Rosh Hashanah. This is the thesis and climax of coronation: “we have no king but you.”
Metaphor here exceeds itself—the map exists without a territory, symbolic thinking transcends its own symbol. In the preceding month we built a bridge to You in the form of the king-mashal. Now that we’ve arrived the bridge is destroyed, and in affirming your sovereignty we in turn affirm Your incomparability: the quality of kingship is Yours alone; no simile is appropriate.
(Postscript: in reflecting on the reception to his 2009 book Open Secret, Elliot Wolfson highlights the text’s analysis of the idiomatic use of the terms mashal [parable] and mammash [actually; really] in Chabad philosophy. Per Wolfson’s reading—as attested in an essay from 2011—the word mammash in Chabad literature implies something beyond literal reality while inclusive of it, signifying “the hyperliteral confluence of the literal (peshat) and the symbolic (sod)” and a convergence of what is a mashal and what should be instead understood mammash, literally. This allows for strange, oxymoronic formulas in classical Chabad philosophy wherein an idea will be introduced by saying, for instance, “verily, by way of a parable” [mammash derekh mashal]. Contained in this is the suggestion that the symbolic is in some way more more real than the literal, allowing for statements like “the king-messiah is here, mammash.”)