‘Our king’ or ‘our protector’: a pre-Hashkiveinu Reflection

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 11 February 2024

We have just sung the words of mi chamochah – which is quoted from the Song of the Sea – the song of freedom that the Israelites sing as they pass through the Red Sea, at the beginning of their route to the Promised Land.

In our evening service, we follow this triumphant song with a song that is more cautious – hashkiveinu is our prayer asking for security and protection.

The great modern Jewish storyteller, Joel Grishaver, quotes the following story to explain the origins of this prayer. Writing about the next stage of the journey of the Israelites, he says:

The good news: They were out of Egypt. The bad news: They didn’t know if Pharaoh would change his mind and bring them back. The good news: They were free. The bad news: They were in the wilderness. They were under the stars. All the food they had was the matzah they had brought with them. The future was really unclear. The Promised Land seemed too far away. It was dark. They gathered some wood and lit some fires. They huddled together, scared of wild animals, scared of the wilderness, and scared of the future. They needed sleep. It had been a long day. Tomorrow would be the same. Out of their fear and their faith they prayed. “Cause us, Eternal, to lie down in peace and then stand us up, Our Ruler, to life.”

Grishaver ends by quoting John Lennon: “Whatever gets you through the night!”

As we sing hashkiveinu, we acknowledge our vulnerability, and we ask for protection from those things that might harm us, and for reassurance against the uncertainty of the future.

Over the years, many have changed the words slightly – not singing malkeinu (‘our king’ or ‘our ruler’), instead singing shomreinu – ‘our guardian’ or ‘our keeper’. This highlights two issues: firstly the very masculine language evoked by ‘our king’ – but secondly, even if we change the translation to ‘our ruler’, it makes God feel remote and officious, rather than close and intimate. It also makes God’s protection into something that cannot be replicated – only God can remove the danger of the night and the uncertainty of the future.

Is that what we are seeking as we confront our vulnerability and our uncertainty?

By replacing the word malkeinu with shomreinu – as we have on our shul sheets this Shabbat – we embrace that more intimate divine connection. Not of an all-powerful God who will grace us with royal protection, but of a friend who knows the way, and who will accompany us through the uncertainty. And this kind of help is replicable – we can be that shomer to each other. We can help guide each other along uncertain paths and protect each other in times of danger – not as a king or ruler, but as a friend and guardian.

Please join as we sing together.