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September 8, 2012 / Rabbi Laura

Not by might…?

Sitting in Shabbat services last night, I noticed something in the Mishkan T’Filah siddur (prayerbook) that hadn’t caught my attention before.

Rabbi Rick had invited the congregation to read the Emet v’Emunah prayer together in English (pg.156). This prayer is recited immediately following the Shema and is about God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  It recalls that moment of freedom and well as looks forward to future redemptions. About 2/3 of the way through the passage we read,

You led Your people Israel out from their midst to freedom for all time.

When Your children witnessed Your dominance

they praised Your Name in Gratitude.


I had never noticed this word before.  Dominance? Do Jews really think that God is dominant?

I turned to the Hebrew.

Vayotzei et amo Yisrael mitocham l’cheirut olam.

V’rau vanav g’vurato,

shib’chu v’hodu lishmo. 

Your dominance = g’vurato.  Gevurah is a common word in our liturgy. Usually it is translated as “might” or “strength.”

I perused other parts of the siddur to see how other instances of gevurah were translated.

  • The Gevurot prayer (p.168) – Ata gibor l’olam Adonai = You are forever mighty
  • Nisim b’chol yom (The Morning Blessings) (p.40) –  Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha’olam, ozer Yisrael b’givura = Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who girds Israel with strength.
  • Ashrei, Psalm 145:1-21 (p 52-54) – Dor l’dor y’shabach ma’asecha, ugvurotecha yagidu. = One generation shall laud Your works to another and declare your mighty acts.  K’vod malchutca yomeru, ugvuratecha yedaberu. L’hodi’a livnei ha’adam g’vurotav, uchvod hadar malchuto. = They shall talk of the majesty of Your sovereignty, and speak of your might, to make God’s mighty acts known among mortals and the majestic glory of Your sovereignty

I thought about a familiar passage from Pirke Avot 4:1 – Ayzeh who gibor? Hakovesh et yitzro. Ben Zoma said, “Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination…”

I thought about the lyrics made famous by Debbie Friedman z’l, “Not by might, nor by power, but by spirit alone…” from Zechariah 4:6.  The Hebrew there is actually different.  Lo b’chayil v’lo b’ko’ach ki i’m b’ruach...  Chayil has the connotation of military might.  You get the point. No where else did I discover gevurah translated as dominance.

So. why here in this one prayer?  Did we really believe that at that moment of redemption from Egypt, as we were about to cross over the sea, that God is dominant?  I suppose when we place this prayer in the context of the moment of our freedom, we could view the God of Israel as dominant.  The Egyptians had challenged Moses and Aaron to prove that their God was more powerful than the Egyptian gods. That is why God brought about the plagues, working miracles to prove that the God of Israel was mightier/stronger/dominant over the Egyptian magicians and gods.

Yet, as we continue to pray for redemption from bondage – what ever that may mean to us today – do we still hold a belief in God’s dominance?  I don’t.   I like to believe that while my God – the one I believe in – provides me strength, and guidance and protection – that the God you believe in may do the same thing for you but in very different ways. For each of us God takes a different shape, a different meaning and role in your life.  There are many paths to God. My path is not dominant over yours, nor is yours over mine.  My God does not dominate over yours, nor does yours dominate over mine.

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