The Meaning(s) of “Great, Mighty, and Awesome”
What does it mean to call God “great, mighty, and awesome,” as we do in the first blessing of the Amidah? Perhaps we are praising God as creator of the world, or redeemer of the Jewish people through miracles.1 After all, these are “great, mighty, and awesome” acts, which humans could never perform. But the biblical context of this phrase points in a very different direction.
In Parashat Eikev we read:
כִּי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹקֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹקֵי הָאֱלֹקִים וַאֲ-דֹנֵי הָאֲ-דֹנִים הָאֵ-ל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד: עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה: וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
For God your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords. The great, mighty, and awesome God who shows no favor and takes no bribe; who does justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The phrase “great, mighty, and awesome” in Parashat Eikev is not a description of God’s cosmic or miraculous creative abilities, but serves as an illustration of God’s ethical commitments to the most vulnerable members of society. God does not take bribes, the currency of those with resources. Rather, God does justice for the widow and orphan, who have no resources. God loves the stranger, and, acting on that love, gives food and clothing.
This definition of God’s greatness is meant to surprise us, an illustration of God’s greatness that is unexpected.2 As R. Joseph Soloveitchik noted:
Significantly, this description of God has direct implications for our behavior as humans. As Moshe says: “You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). That is, “walking in God’s ways,” mentioned earlier in Deuteronomy 10:12, is now concretized: Israel must “love the stranger,” just as God “loves the stranger.” The recitation of the phrase “great, mighty, and awesome” moves from a contemplation of God’s transcendent powers (which can never really be fully described with human language4) to a directive for a loving relationship with the stranger, modeled on God’s behavior.5
With this context in mind, this phrase in the Amidah is not a general praise of God, but rather a specific description, combined with an attempt to spur one to ethical action with the most vulnerable members of society. In other words, reciting this line is not a description of God’s essence, but rather it is an opportunity to ask oneself, based on God’s example: have I taken care of the widow, orphan, and stranger today?
But what if the beautiful picture painted by Moshe is not the reality that we experience? How can we praise God as taking care of the vulnerable when we see the vulnerable suffering? This is an age-old challenge to prayer (and religion in general), one that is expressed in the Talmud Yerushalmi. There, R. Pinhas notes all four of the exact or near-exact quotations of this list of adjectives in the Bible, and brings them into dialogue with each other around this question of how we can praise God in a world filled with pain:
אמר ר' פנחס משה התקין מטבעה של תפילה [דברים י יז] הא-ל הגדול הגבור והנורא.
ירמיה אמר [ירמי' לב יח] הא-ל הגדול הגבור ולא אמר הנורא.
למה אמר הגבור לזה נאה לקרות גבור שהוא רואה חורבן ביתו ושותק.
ולמה לא אמר נורא
אלא שאין נורא אלא בית המקדש שנא' [תהילים סח לו] נורא אלקים ממקדשך.
דניאל אמר [דניאל ט ד] הא-ל הגדול והנורא ולא אמר הגבור בניו מסורין בקולרין היכן היא גבורתו.
ולמה אמר הנורא לזה נאה לקרות נורא בנוראות שעשה לנו בכבשן האש.
וכיון שעמדו אנשי כנסת הגדולה החזירו הגדולה ליושנה [נחמיה ט לב] הא-ל הגדול הגבור והנורא.
R. Pinhas said: Moshe established the form of the Amidah: “The great, mighty, and awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17).
Jeremiah (32:18) said: “The great and mighty God,” but did not say “awesome.”
Why did he say “mighty”? One who can watch the destruction of His house and be quiet is fittingly called mighty.
And why didn’t he say “awesome”?
Because only the Temple is awesome, as it says (Psalm 68:36): “Awesome is God from His Sanctuary.”
Daniel (9:4) said “The great awesome God” but did not say “mighty.” His sons have been given over to chains, so where is [God’s] might?!
Why did [Daniel] say “awesome”? For the awesome things [God] did for us in the fiery furnace,7 [God] is fittingly called awesome.
When the Men of the Great Assembly arose, they returned greatness to its earlier place, [saying]: “The great, mighty, and awesome God” (Nehemiah 9:32).
Pinhas starts out by establishing the baseline for this phrase: our text from Parashat Eikev in which God takes care of the vulnerable. He notes how Moshe wrote the line that was set to be included in the Amidah.
But the next time this phrase is spoken, Jeremiah has eliminated the word “awesome.” After all, God can only be called awesome when the Temple is standing, and in Jeremiah’s time, the Temple was destroyed. He simply cannot call God awesome anymore.
Notably, Jeremiah does continue to call God “mighty.” But R. Pinhas notes how the word “mighty” has gone through an interpretive shift. This is not the might that is displayed in Moshe’s formulation, where God, through that might, saves those in need. By contrast, this is a might that is expressed in God’s holding back from interfering with the punishment that is deserved; God wants to step in and save, but God does not. Instead, God watches the destruction and does not intervene.
We often think of might as taking action, but here might is expressed as inaction: a form of self-restraint. This could be compared to a parent who viscerally wants to protect their child from a consequence, even though the consequence is deserved.8 It takes might to hold back, and is a twist on Ben Zoma’s statement: “Who is mighty? The one who conquers his will” (Mishna Avot 4:1).9 Indeed, one could view this in a pious light, in which Jeremiah is in fact praising God for being strong by not intervening, or in a more ironic light, in which Jeremiah is frustrated with God’s inaction.10
In the interpretation of R. Pinhas, this phrase continues to journey through history. The prophet Daniel, living in exile a few generations after Jeremiah and the destruction, refuses to say the word “mighty,” adding a third interpretation to this adjective. If the Israelites are in chains, where is God’s might? Daniel cannot say this word, which Jeremiah had reinterpreted, anymore.
Interestingly, Daniel restores the word “awesome,” which Jeremiah refused to say, noting that God is called awesome only when the Temple is standing, and that Temple has been destroyed.11 By contrast, Daniel is able to call God awesome for the awesome things that God did directly for him and his compatriots, including miraculously rescuing them. This is an apt expression of the paradox many survivors feel. On the one hand, God’s might is absent, evident in the previous destruction. On the other hand, God is present and performing miracles even in exile. Daniel cannot fully write off God’s presence in his personal life, even if he harbors some anger and disappointment about being forced to live in exile.
The Men of the Great Assembly (a group of sages which, according to rabbinic tradition,12 includes Nehemiah, in whose book the phrase is finally mentioned) get the final say, restoring the full line, including both “mighty” and “awesome.” They have returned to the land, and are able to recite the full phrase: God is “great, mighty, and awesome.”
But what does “great, mighty, and awesome” mean in their restored version? It is more than just a repetition of what Moshe stated in Parashat Eikev. These words have gone through an interpretive and historical journey, and the restored version of the phrase brings this journey with it. Thus, when the worshiper recites these words in the Amidah, it is not the idealized first encounter of Moshe’s formulation, but a more history-worn version that has experienced the destruction of the Temple, God’s restraint, and the placing of Israel in chains. The three adjectives—“great, mighty, and awesome”—are weighty ones, painfully aware of God’s true actions—or lack thereof—in the world. We can say the full phrase again, but not without remembering the times when our prophets could not.
How does R. Pinhas’s midrash impact our understanding of this line in the Amidah? When I recite this phrase, I am aware that I can’t be describing God’s essence with adjectives. Sometimes I think of my obligation to love and support the downtrodden, as expressed by Moshe in Parashat Eikev. But sometimes I think of the way in which the nature of my connection with God is informed by the historical journey of our people. I can say the full phrase “great, mighty, and awesome” because I am grateful not to live in a time of utter destruction and complete exile. And yet I am aware and remember the earlier iterations, when our greatest leaders could not say the whole phrase. Saying this phrase becomes a moment to acknowledge the complexity that our people has experienced in its journey through time with God.
2 Indeed, R. Yohanan (Bavli Megillah 31a) sees this as a critical aspect of God: even though God is described as mighty (read: lofty), God is—in the same breath—“in the trenches” with the most vulnerable: “Every place that you find God’s strength you also find God’s humility… It is written in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords [the great, mighty, and awesome God]’ and it is written afterward: ‘but does justice for the fatherless and the widow.’”
4 See Bavli Megillah 25a and parallels, in which R. Hanina’s criticism of the person who added words to this phrase in the Amidah, not from the Bible, saying that additional adjectives are useless because it is like praising a king for silver coins when he has thousands of gold coins. R. Hanina notes that the only reason we can say these three adjectives—great, mighty, and awesome—is because they are written in the Torah. On the futility of properly describing God through praise words, see my previous essay on Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei, “Why Praise God in Prayer?”
5 For this philosophy, see the statement of Abba Shaul in Mekhilta Massekhta de-Shirah 3, ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 127. Compare also Sifrei Devarim Eikev #49 (ed. Finkelstein, p. 114) and Bavli Sotah 14a.
7 In Daniel 3:15-28, Daniel’s friends were rescued from the fiery furnace. Manuscripts London and Paris add: “and in the lion’s den, a miracle that occurs to Daniel himself” (Daniel 6:8-24). See Peter Schäfer and Hans-Jurgen Becker, Synopse zum Talmud Yerushalmi: Ordnung Zera'im: Berakhot und Pe'a (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), pp. 192-3.
10 For the former interpretation, see Eliezer Berkovits, Faith after the Holocaust (New York: Ktav, 1973), pp. 107-113. For the latter approach, see Abba Hanan’s statement in Bavli Gittin 56b: “Abba Hanan says: ‘Who is strong like You, O Lord?’ (Psalm 89:9). Who is strong and indurate like You, as You hear the abuse and the blasphemy of that wicked man (= Titus) and remain silent.”