“The Rock!—whose deeds are perfect, Yea, all God’s ways are just.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)
If I am going to write about metaphors, perhaps it is best to begin with William Shakespeare:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer day.”
“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
“Now is the winter of our discontent.”
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”
“All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players.”
Nobody can compose a metaphor like the Bard. As we all learned in grammar school, metaphors are poetic ways to compare one item to something else. Our beloved is a summer day, Juliet is the sun, our discontent is winter, life is a walking shadow, the world is a stage. Metaphors are a central feature of poetry. And in this week’s poetic portion we read on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have one of the most important metaphors in Jewish tradition. God is HaTzur, the Rock.
When Israel was founded in 1948, there was a great debate whether to mention God in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The country was torn between religious and secular Jews. Should the document refer to God? They settled on a metaphor, Metoch Betachon BeTzur Yisrael “With trust in the Rock of Israel.” For religious Jews the Rock of Israel is God. For secular Jews, it is the history or the tradition of the people. The word is vague enough to be the perfect metaphor.
The Torah uses the metaphor of a Rock because rocks are solid and longstanding. Nonetheless, we all know that rocks do not last forever. George and Ira Gershwin could write in one of their most famous songs, “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay, but our love is here to stay.” Over time even rocks dissolve away.
All this points to an important insight regarding metaphors. They are poetic, never exact. Another important insight about metaphors. They are not true or false. They are either useful or not useful. Nobody’s love is truly like a summer day, and God is not truly a rock. We use these metaphors because they are a poetic way to describe something. If a metaphor ceases to be useful, we simply stop using it.
That brings us to perhaps the most well-known metaphor in the High Holiday liturgy. The ark is opened and hundreds of voices loudly sing, Avinu Malkenu “Our Father our King.” God is a Father who cares for his children and at the same time, a King Who rules over His kingdom. It is a powerful moment, but for many moderns, problematic. In a world where we are seeking to imagine God without a gender, how do we sing “Our Father our King.” Some prayerbooks translate the line as “Our Parent our Sovereign.” That works in English. But it is impossible to imagine a non-gendered way to sing the original Hebrew. Of course, we can remove the prayer, but then we are removing something central to the way most Jews relate to the High Holiday liturgy.
What do we do when a metaphor no longer rings true? Virtually any language about God is a metaphor. We use words like Rock, Father, King, Source, Womb, and many others for God. All of them help us relate to God. But none of them are absolutely true. God is beyond any metaphors we might invent, any language we use. Maimonides made that clear almost a millennium ago with his negative theology. He claimed that any language about God simply teaches us what God is not. We cannot talk about God in any positive language at all.
Metaphors are beautiful, as long as we realize their limitations. They help us move beyond the limits of language and speak about what we cannot speak about. Whatever problems they raise, I will proudly sing Avinu Malkenu on the High Holidays, and refer to God as my Rock in my daily prayers.