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08: Ata Kadosh

  • Rav Ezra Bick



Dedicated in memory of both Zissel Bat Yitzchak Gontownik, and Avraham Ben Yosef Halevi Gontownik,
on the occasion of his tenth yahrzeit, by his children, Anne and Jerry Gontownik, and Sidney Gontownik, and his grandchildren, Ari and Shira, Zev and Daniela, Yonatan, Ranan, Hillel, and Ezra Gontownik.




            After spending the previous two shiurim exploring the idea of kedusha in general, and of being "mekadesh," of sanctifying God's name, in particular, we have finally returned to the third berakha of the Shemona Esrei, the berakha of kedusha.


You are holy, and Your Name is holy,

and holy ones every day praise You, sela.

Blessed are You, Hashem, the holy God.


            The explanation of the first line follows from the previous two shiurim. "You are holy" - God is intrinsically holy, in-and-of-Himself. "And Your name is holy" - The name of God, the presence of God on the lips and in the souls of those who worship Him, is holy as well. God's perfect holiness is reflected within the imperfect world of Man, and this "imperfect" holiness is holy as well.


            The line which requires special attention here is the second one. "The holy ones every day praise" God. Who are the holy ones, and why is their praise of God relevant to a berakha which is clearly about the holiness of God?


A. Holiness and Miracles


            R. Yehuda b. Yakar, the 13th century Provencal commentator on the Siddur, explains this line by reference to a midrash:


This language refers to the Mekhilta (Beshalach):

R. Meir says: "If for the first man, who was alone, I made the dry land, as is written, 'God said, let the waters gather' (that is, just as I am alone and one, so he was alone and one), for the congregation of the holy shall I not turn the sea into dry land?" (That is, since I am holy).

This - that God says that he does the miracles for the holy congregation since He himself is holy - must be the proper interpretation of the Mekhilta, for if the explanation was that they are many and the first man only one, it should simply have said "for the many shall I not turn the sea into dry land." Why were they called "the holy congregation?"

Therefore we pray and say: Just as He did miracles for us since we are called "holy" like He is, so too we should praise Him for we are called "holy" like He is.


            This enigmatic explanation raises more questions than it seems to solve. What is the connection between kedusha and miracles (specifically, the splitting of the Sea)? Why is praise engendered from those who share the quality of holiness with God? Finally, what is the meaning of the "just as" clause - what is the connection between the miracles that God did for "the holy congregation" and the praise of the "holy ones" for God?


B. Holiness and Nature


            If you have been following these shiurim for the last two sessions, the answer to all these questions will be clear. Kedusha, we have explained, is the increase in God's presence in the world as produced by Man's ability to reflect the absolute perfection of God. Man does this by perfecting himself, by striving upward to transcend himself, to be more than he naturally is. In other words, kedusha is transcendence, real increase in value, producing more than the sum of the parts. This is precisely what a miracle is - the revelation of God's POWER in the world, so that something is produced beyond the natural sum of the parts and means. There is, therefore, a direct connection between the increase in kedusha, that is, the increase in the non-natural presence of God, produced by the free act of man's perfection, and the phenomenon of miracle, the presence of God's power acting freely beyond the confines of natural cause and effect.


            Hence, since God is holy, He performs miracles for the "holy congregation." The holy congregation is the public body of those who sanctify God's name, who bear the increase of kedusha in this world. Since God is holy, His presence in this world is dependent on the holy congregation, who call upon His name, and that presence naturally is expressed in miracle.


            The second equation is now equally clear. Since we are called holy like God, we should praise Him who is the "holy God." Praising God, as we saw in the previous shiurim, is itself the act of making kedusha. Since God is holy and the source of all holiness, people - who have the potential to reflect the absolutely perfect holiness of God, should praise God, make His presence felt in the world, support His glory (kavod), and bless the name of the glory of His kingdom, for that is what makes the holiness of God present in this world. The end of the berakha, then - "Blessed be You, the holy God" - is not merely descriptive, but declaratory - we, the holy congregation, bless You, God, and therefore You are, in this world and in our midst, the holy God. Of course, this is circular, as we saw last week that kedusha is always circular. The holy ones are the ones who should praise God and sanctify Him - which is the reason that they are themselves holy, for they reflect the holiness of God in their own lives.


C. M'ein chatima


            This explains the lack of an apparent "m'ein chatima" before the conclusion of the berakha. In Nusach Sefarad, there is an extra line before the conclusion.


For You are a great and holy God and king.

Blessed are You, the holy God.


            This is a classic "m'ein chatima," which, as we have seen, is a halakhic requirement before the conclusion. But in Nusach Ashkenaz, this line is absent, and the introduction to the conclusion is "and holy ones every day praise You, sela." What happened to the "m'ein chatima?" According to my explanation, the answer is clear. "Holy ones every day praise You" IS the "m'ein chatima," for the praise of the holy congregation is the basis for the holiness of God, not in the absolute sense, but in the immanent sense, God as present in the world. In other words, the berakha is not about God's perfect transcendence, but about kedusha in the world. Since the holy ones praise You daily, therefore You are the holy God.  There is no need to add the "missing" line.


D. L'dor va-dor


            There is another, rather different version of this berakha, which is today reserved for the repetition of the Shemona Esrei by the chazan. It is recited in every repetition in Nusach Ashkenaz, and in Musaf of Shabbat in Nusach Sefarad (Ari).


In every generation we shall recite Your greatness,

And for all eternity Your sanctity we shall sanctify,

And Your praise, our God, shall never ever leave our lips.

For You are a great and holy God and king.

Blessed are You, the holy God.


            The general theme of this blessing is similar to the one we have already discussed, and indeed it emphasizes even more clearly the point I have made. Sanctification consists in praise, by humans, of God, for thereby His presence and sanctity become part of this world. There is, though, one striking theme present here not found in the regular version of the berakha. This berakha repeatedly emphasizes one aspect of this praise of God - eternity. In every generation ("L'DOR VA-DOR"), and for all eternity ("NETZACH NETZACHIM"), the praise of God shall never ("L'OLAM VA-ED") leave our lips. This seems to be the main point of the berakha - not so much that we shall praise God, but that we affirm that this praise shall be constantly on our lips, for now and for all eternity. What is the significance of this affirmation?


            If we understand the thesis I have been advancing in an exclusive manner, that the ONLY basis for God's presence in the world and the existence of kedusha within mundane existence is the free act of man's sanctification of God, then the affirmation of eternal constancy becomes crucial. The berakha is not about praise, about an obligation of Man to praise his creator. It is about the connection between God and the world, about the redemption of the world from secularity. Let me go one step further. It is about the basis for the world's existence, for if the world would have no sanctity, if the world would not reflect the glory of God's majesty at all, it could not exist. Nothing can exist outside of God's presence. Hence, we promise that this process of sanctification shall be constant, for all generations. If I were merely saying that I wish to praise God, for He is worthy of praise, then it would be fitting that this obligation should find its measured place amidst my other obligations, perhaps once a week, or several hours during the week, when I am not fulfilling other important duties. But if we are discussing the ONLY basis for sanctity in the world, if this is what defines Man's existence as the "image of God," then not even for one second can I imagine a world where the praise and sanctity of God are not on human lips - for if not there, then sanctity is nowhere at all. A man who does not reflect the sanctity of God is not a man at all, not a living image of God. Since You are a KING who is holy ("king," as we saw, refers to God ruling over the world), we must keep your name on our lips at all times, for God's kingship exists within the world only when we accept it and affirm it. Hence - l'dor va-dor, for ever and at all times, constantly.


            There is a fine paradox in this affirmation, worthy of a berakha that states that we bear the quality of God's holiness. If there is one quality that we should fear attributing to Man (other than sanctity itself), it is constancy. As Coleridge stated, "Constancy lives in realms above." "Netzach," eternity, is not an attribute at home within flesh and blood. But kedusha allows no compromise - it is either eternity or nothing; either you agree to reflect God Himself, eternally king, or you are no more than yourself, no growth, no unlimited striving, no transcendence, no kedusha. L'dor va-dor!


E. Ha-Melekh Ha-kadosh


            From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, there is a special need to emphasize God's kingdom, since Rosh Hashana is the day of God's ascension of the throne. Since it is a time of judgment, and God judges Man as part of His role as king, we understand why the berakha of judgment becomes "the KING of judgment." But why is our berakha of holiness also changed, from "the holy God" to "the holy king?" What is the connection between sanctity and kingship?


            The answer is, based on the previous shiurim, clear. The kingship of Rosh Hashana is one which we accept upon ourselves. The shofar is a declaration, an act of crowning God. This is, as we have seen, the principle of kedusha - the acts of Man are the basis for God's presence  in the world. God as king WITHIN the world is "the holy king," ha-melekh ha-kadosh. Malkhut and kedusha, kingship and sanctity, are two sides of the same process.


            With this we have finished the first section of the Shemona Esrei, the praise of God which must precede the requests and supplication which is the central component. We now begin the thirteen requests which the Sages felt are basic to human existence. No man can appear before God and not request these requests. These are the needs of man; service of God is the recognition of these needs. Next week we commence with the first need of man - knowledge.