Our parasha, Eikev, contains a phrase that is familiar to many, since it is found in the first blessing (Birkat Avot) of the Shmoneh Esreh: “G-d your L-rd is the ultimate Supreme Being and the highest possible Authority. He is the great (hagadol), mighty (hagibor) and awesome (v’hanorah) G-d (A-le), who does not give special consideration or take bribes. (Devarim)
Ezra the Scribe repeats our expression in his prayer before the Jewish people: “And now, our G-d, the great (hagadol), mighty (hagibor), and awesome (v’hanorah) G-d, Who keeps the covenant and the loving- kindness…” (Sefer Nechmiah IX:32)
Rashi maintains, in his commentary on Talmud Bavli, Berachot 33b (s.v. va’takninahu b’tefilah) that Ezra’s prayer is the source for our phrase’s inclusion in Birkat Avot. His assertion, however, is not universally accepted since some, like the great Rabbinic luminary, Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg (the Sha’agat Aryeh), maintained that Ezra’s use of our expression was a purely temporary event, whereas its permanent presence in the Shmoneh Esreh is based on our Torah portion’s pasuk. (Sefer Turei Evan, Talmud Bavli, Megillah 25a, s.v. hashta hachi telata) In either case, the phrase, “HaA-le hagadol hagibor v’hanorah,” has become an integral part of our liturgy.
One might think that if it is acceptable to declare, “HaA-le hagadol hagibor v’hanorah,” it should be allowed, as well, to add other descriptions of the Almighty during the recitation of the Shmoneh Esreh. This approach was actually followed by an anonymous shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) in early Talmudic times, who to his chagrin, found himself under the critical eye of Rabbi Chanina bar Chama:
“A certain [reader] went down in the presence of Rabbi Chanina and said, ‘O’ G-d, the great (hagadol), mighty (hagibor), awesome (v’hanorah), majestic, powerful, awe-filled, strong, fearless, sure and honored.’ He waited until he had finished, and when he completed [his prayer] he said to him, ‘Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this?’ (Talmud Bavli 33b)
Rabbi Chanina was singularly unimpressed with the shaliach tzibbur’s seven personal additions. Therefore, he asked him, “Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this?” In other words, he asked him the same rhetorical question as David HaMelech expressed in Sefer Tehillim, “Who can narrate the mighty deeds of the L-rd? [Who] can make heard all His praise?” (106:2) Moreover, Rabbi Chanina teaches us that even our phrase, “HaA-le hagadol hagibor v’hanorah,” would have been disallowed as part of the Shmoneh Esreh, “had not Moses our Master mentioned them in the Torah and had not the Men of the Great Assembly come and inserted them into the order of prayers.” Little wonder Rabbi Chanina subsequently proclaimed to the overly creative shaliach tzibbur, “And you say all these and still go on!”
In addition, in the event that the shaliach tzibbur failed to comprehend Rabbi Chanina’s message, he shared the following mashal (parable) with him: “It is as if an earthly king had a million denarii of gold, and someone praised him as possessing silver ones. Would it not be an insult to him?” Stated somewhat differently, when the Torah employed the phrase, “HaA-le hagadol hagibor v’hanorah,” it became a matir (authorization) for the Men of the Great Assembly to utilize it in the Shmoneh Esreh, but not for additional prayer formulations to be added to the liturgy by others.
Basing himself upon our Gemara, the Rambam (Maimonides) codified the following halacha: “A person should not be profuse in his mention of adjectives describing G-d, and say: ‘The great, mighty, awesome, powerful, courageous, and strong G-d,’ for it is impossible for man to express the totality of His praises. Instead, one should mention [only] the praises that were mentioned by Moses, of blessed memory [i.e. “HaA-le hagadol hagibor v’hanorah].” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah IX:7)
The Rambam’s reasoning as to why one is proscribed from adding new praises to the Master of the Universe in the context of the Shmoneh Esreh is clear, “for it is impossible for man to express the totality of His praises.” Quite simply, finite man is incapable of properly depicting the majesty and greatness of the infinite Hashem. Therefore, we must limit our accolades to the Torah’s own words.
Given the halachic and theological parameters of extoling Hashem in the context of Birkat Avot, we are now in a better position to analyze our phrase’s deeper meaning. There are three descriptions of Hashem in our expression, namely, hagadol (the great), hagibor (the mighty), and hanorah (the awesome). I believe that each may be viewed, in turn, as corresponding to the three Avot (Patriarchs), i.e., Abraham’s destiny is inextricably interwoven with the word, “gadol,” Isaac’s to “gibor,” and Jacob’s to “norah.”
The word “gadol,” and its verbal variant, appear in reference to Abram/Abraham in both Parshiot Lech Lecha and Vayera: “And I will make you into a great (gadol) nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great (va’aadlah), and [you shall] be a blessing.” (Bereishit) “And Abraham will become a great (gadol) and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. (Bereishit 18:18)
n addition to gadol as a description of Abram/Abraham, there is an amazing midrash that explicitly presents him as he who enabled the entire world to recognize the greatness (gedultao, a variant of gadol) of Hashem: ‘And there are those who say that he [Mordechai] was the equivalent to Abraham in his generation. Just like our father, Abraham, allowed himself to be tossed into [Nimrod’s] fiery furnace, and in so doing enabled the people of the earth to return to and recognize the greatness (gedultao) of the Holy One blessed be He, as it is written: “and the souls that they made [Avraham and Sarah converted] in Haran.” (Midrash Esther Rabbah VI:2)
Clearly, Abraham, in his role as G-d’s messenger to the nations of the world, is forevermore connected to the expression “HaA-le hagadol.”
Isaac was in many ways the epitome of gevurah (great might), in the sense in which Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) employed this term in Pirkei Avot (IV:1), “Who is a hero? One who overpowers his desires.” On measure, it was precisely this middah (ethical characteristic) that enabled Isaac to submit to Hashem’s will at the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac). Little wonder, then, that both Kabbalistic and Chasidic literature perceive him as personifying this quality that he shared, on the human level, with Ha-Ale hagibor.
Jacob, perhaps, has the clearest nexus to the term with which he is paired, namely, “norah.” This is the case, since he declared, “Mah norah hamakom hazeh!” (“How awesome is this place!” Bereishit 28:17) after discovering he had inadvertently slept on the makom haMikdash (the place of the future Beit HaMikdash). Thus, Jacob is associated for all eternity with the deepest recognition of the norah nature of the Almighty.
With Hashem’s help, and our fervent desire, may each of us, as heirs of the Avot, come to acknowledge Him as “HaA-le hagadol hagibor v’hanorah,” and may we sanctify His holy name through heartfelt devotion to His Torah and mitzvot. V’chane yihi ratzon.