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Why did the great chassidic master Rabbi Aaron of Karlin faint when he came to the word “Hamelech” in the Rosh Hashanah prayers?

The King and I

The King and I

Hamelech

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Hamelech (“the king”) is an oft-occurring word in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, whose dominant theme is our coronation of G‑d as king of the universe and our submission to His sovereignty. Indeed, it is the first word chanted by the cantor on Rosh Hashanah morning, as he opens the Shacharit prayers with an awe-inspiring melody that climaxes with a sonorous “Ha-me-lech!”

One Rosh Hashanah morning, the great chassidic master Rabbi Aaron of Karlin fainted when he came to the word Hamelech. He later explained that he recalled the Talmudic passage that describes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s encounter with Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan had himself smuggled out of the besieged city of Jerusalem to plead with the Roman general to spare the Torah center of Yavneh. When Rabbi Yochanan entered Vespasian’s tent, he addressed him as “Your Majesty.”

“You are deserving of death on two accounts,” said Vespasian. “First of all, I am not the king, only His Majesty’s general.” (In fact, a messenger from Rome was already approaching the general’s camp to inform him that he had been appointed sovereign of the empire.) “Secondly, if I am indeed king, why did you not come to me until now?”

“I thought to myself,” said the rebbe of Karlin, “if we address the Almighty as ‘King,’ does this not invite the question, ‘If I am indeed your king, why did you not come to me until now?’ What can we answer to that?”

From the Chassidic Masters
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