Malchut Shaddai: The Kingdom of Heaven in Judaism
Ever been to the Magic Kingdom? To see it, you have to go to Anaheim, Orlando, or even out of the country. And what’s the Magic Kingdom all about? “It’s the place where all your dreams come true,” one of my Hebrew school kids told me. “It’s about taking your money,” observed another.
Jews also have a magic kingdom of sorts, one hopefully not so facile as a “dream factory” nor so susceptible to cynicism – Malchut Shaddai or Malchut Shamayim, the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve all heard the term, but what does it mean? Jews mention it throughout our Siddur (prayerbook), but for me the most memorable reference appears as part of the evening Geulah prayer – malchutekha rau banekha bokeiakh yam lifnei Moshe, “Your children saw Your kingdom before Moses at the shores of the sea.” They did? What the heck does that mean? God’s kingdom is located in the Sinai, on the edge of the Sea of Reeds? Its something we can see?
I think about that prayer a lot, and this is what I’ve concluded. What the people saw on the shores of the Sea of Reeds was a triumph of good. The pervasive power to oppress and enslave was momentarily overturned, and for an instant, the people “saw” something extraordinary – a world without taskmasters, tormentors, or the supremacy of cruelty. Of course the world soon returned to it normal inequities, but that was the Kingdom of God, glimpsed for but a moment, for that generation. And what that implies is that we too can “see,” can experience the Kingdom for ourselves. It can appear anywhere, under any circumstances.
The great philosopher and congregational rabbi Leo Baeck, who despite having other options, willingly chose to join his congregation in the Nazi concentration camps and survived to tell about it, once wrote of the Kingdom that,
…It is not a secret divination of the future, nor is it an announcement of something which will descend to earth from some other world. It is rather a demand and a certainty arising from the very depths of life’s significance. The kingdom of God is the world as it should be in the eyes of God.
I think that this modest definition reflected his own experience. I suspect during the 2 years he was in camps, he had to look long and hard for anything that might resemble the Kingdom of God amidst the Nazi’s Kingdom of Death, but apparently he did. He saw people under continuous assault, but he also saw a few people who, despite the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, acted in ways that affirmed life’s significance, people who refused to give up on the world as it should be, however terrible it actually was. Each small act was a visible token of the Kingdom, even if it was only momentary, even if it was swept away almost immediately by the enduring awful reality around them.
This month we too got to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom from afar. When Dr. Liviu Librescu, a 76 year old Romanian Jew and Holocaust refugee, interposed himself between his students and a deranged spree killer, he affirmed the Kingdom of Heaven. In a terrible moment, he acted in a way that embraced the world as God wants it to be. His resistance was brief and the sanctuary from terror he offered his students was infinitesimal. And in acting as he did he surrendered his place in this world, but also he gained the Kingdom for himself and he showed it to the rest of us.
May his memory be for a blessing, and may the Kingdom he exemplified come - fully realized, enduringly, and in our own time.