I woke up this morning to the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth 2. Curiously, it felt like a personal loss. It was as if a dear and revered elderly aunt or close family member had died. On reflection, my reaction was probably not unusual and will surely be shared by so many across so many borders.
For this was surely the magic and magnetism of this remarkable woman. She had an awesome ability to connect people in a disconnected age. When she spoke you wanted to listen, you wanted to get a little closer to a human being who had achieved so much in her time on earth. As she aged, she seemed to finesse her capacity to connect to ordinary people despite her regal position and ease in the corridors of power. She achieved that remarkable humility that is the true mark of greatness.
Just last week we read of the only reference in the Torah about the appointment of a king. The text goes to great lengths to limit the power of the monarch and concludes with the most telling of lines: ‘The heart of the King should not be arrogant over his brothers, so he will not stray away from even the smallest commandment… in order that he will reign for a long time over his kingdom’ (Deuteronomy 17:20).
The king or queen are called on to be part of the life of their brothers and sisters. They are even appointed by them and not by some divine right. They are not called the father or mother of the nation but the brother or sister. This, says Micah Goodman, is a remarkable insight into the perils of power and the temptation to place yourself above others because you have an elevated position. Or, in the more popular way of putting it, to become up yourself!
In contemporary times, kings and queens no longer hold power but they do have the potential to exercise something even stronger than power, which is influence. Queen Elizabeth with her remarkable sense of duty and ability to put aside her ego and her own opinions to serve others, was the perfect exemplar of a royal presence and impeccable influence.
While she always had a clear and patent sense of duty (and articulated it), as she aged, she seemed to become more accessible and open to others and simply enjoy interacting with the common folk. She was the one to introduce and popularise the walkabout, shaking hands with and chatting to the crowds that came out to meet and greet her. One of the most endearing memories we will surely have of her is her video on her 70th Coronation anniversary in which she playfully chats with Paddington Bear and taps out the immemorial notes from the band Queen – ‘We will rock you.’ This remarkable and somewhat diminutive woman found a way to rock us well into the 21st century.
One of the hallmarks of greatness is surely the ability to adapt. A failure to adapt to changing times can paralyse the best of minds and diminish the richest of potentials. Queen Elizabeth may have been a constant in our lives; she has been beautifully called ‘as constant as the North Star;’ she was however not unchanging or inflexible.
Her decision to stay in London during the Blitz and to reach out and empathise with others during the height of the coronavirus are a tribute to her recognition of changing eras. Who could not be moved by the poignant picture of her sitting alone in her mask in the chapel during her beloved husband’s funeral last year? Her capacity to change is, for me, reflected in her intuitive grasp of the impact of Princess Diana’s death and its implication for the future of the royal family at the time. The initial aloofness and distance of the royal family on the death of Diana undermined confidence in the family and they were seen to be out of touch. Queen Elizabeth grasped this, changed the perception and reinforced the role of the monarchy as a relevant and influential force in contemporary times.
Queen Elizabeth earned the right to the promise of that verse – she reigned long over her kingdom, helping it move from Empire to a more caring and inclusive Commonwealth. One of the most stunning examples of this is Queen Elizabeth II dancing with President Kwame Nkrumah at the High Life Ball, held at the State House, Accra, Ghana, 20th November 1962.
The Great Jewish scholar Maimonides writes that the king is the heart of the entire congregation. Elucidating this, the Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that unlike the brain which coordinates but is distant from the rest of the body, the heart moves constantly, and its entire purpose is the service of the other limbs and organs. For this reason, he says, the king, or in our case the Queen, is compared specifically to the heart since she is totally devoted to the people and involved with their needs. Such was Queen Elizabeth II.
We will miss you HRH – thanks for gifting us with your Elizabethan Age!