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What Do We Do With Avinu Malkeinu? - Rosh Hashanah 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

[With gratitude to the anthology Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father, Our King, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Jewish Lights, 2015, from whence I gleaned much of the information in this talk.]

Sometime in the 2nd century C.E., around the year 100, there was a great drought in the land of Israel. According to a story in the Talmud, one of the leading rabbis of the time, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, gathered the community together and led a special set of prayers, in order to bring an end to the drought. But no rain fell. Then, his student, Rabbi Akiva, offered a prayer, apparently a spontaneous prayer, in which he simply said:  

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה

Avinu malkeinu, ain lanu melekh eleh atah

Our father, our king, we have no king besides you.  

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ, לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ

Avinu malkeinu, l’ma’ancha rachem aleynu

Our father, our king, for Your sake, have compassion for us.

And the rain fell. (Taanit 25b)

At some point in the medieval period, another line was added to Rabbi Akiva’s prayer in printed editions of the Talmud:

Avinu Malkeinu, chatanu lifanecha – Our father, our king, we have sinned before you.

From this simple story in the Talmud emerged, over the course of centuries, the prayer we now know as Avinu Malkeinu. It is not required by Jewish law anywhere, but has become an integral part of the High Holydays liturgy, for both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. I imagine that most people familiar with High Holydays services can’t imagine it not being there.  

As many of you know, I’ve spent the past decade or so working on my book, God is Here, which makes the case for reclaiming non-human metaphors for the Divine. I’ve talked with you at the High Holydays about God as Water, as Rock, as Place, as Electricity, as GPS. But this year I found myself drawn to explore these two very human, often problematic metaphors for the divine: God as Father, and God as King. So I’m calling this talk, “What do we do with Avinu Malkeinu?”  

There are many versions of this prayer, which is called a litany – a repeating series of lines with the same format. Our version has 19 lines; some have as many as 44. The lines of the prayer are a series of requests in the first-person plural, a collective plea – asking God for wellbeing in the new year, for safety and healing, for forgiveness and good fortune, for a good livelihood and political liberation. 

So let’s begin by taking a look at each of these metaphors – “Father” and “King.”

The metaphor of God as father, as parent, is a complicated one. All of us have or had a parent; some of us are parents. It’s a hard job. Some parents are paragons of loving care. Some parents inflict terrible pain on their children. Some parents are absent. What are we to do with this notion of God as “Av,” as “Father”?

It might be helpful to dig a bit deeper into the roots of this metaphor. The image of God as parent has Biblical roots, even though God is actually only referred to as a father or parent about 10 times in the entire Hebrew Bible. This word, “av,” has multiple meanings in Biblical Hebrew: it can mean ancestor, teacher, leader. In the Bible and the surrounding Mesopotamian cultures, the metaphor of God as parent incorporated many meanings: as creator of life; as compassionate guide; as guarantor of justice, nurturer and healer, liberator from bondage. 

I think it is safe to say that however problematic earthly fathers, earthly parents, might sometimes be, for our ancestors the image of God as a father connoted compassion and care, a source of refuge and protection. As a metaphor in our liturgy, we might think of it as an invitation to call out to the av, the parent or ancestor or teacher, that either we have had, or the one we wished we had. Calling out to “Avinu” is an opportunity to open our hearts to Something in the universe which cares for us, holds us, guides us with love.  

But if God as father is complicated, how much more so the image of God as King! We Americans don’t much like kings. We rebel against them and consider them tyrants. But as we saw recently with the death of Queen Elizabeth, there are millions of people – and not only in Britain – who do love their kings and queens. For the authors of the Hebrew Bible, a divine king was an idealized ruler – wise, strong, and fair.

In the rabbinic period, calling God “king” may have had a more subversive meaning. The story of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva that I shared earlier occurred in Roman-ruled Palestine. For the Romans, the birthday of the emperor marked the beginning of a new year, a new creation. Rosh Hashanah became, in this period, the Jewish celebration of  God’s creation of the world, and the re-enthronement of YHVH, the Ultimate King, as sovereign of the entire universe. My Reconstructionist colleague, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, argues that by calling God “Malkeinu,” “our King,” Rabbi Akiva and his Talmudic colleagues were asserting that God was their true sovereign, not the Roman emperor. Rabbi Sasso writes:

 “The forms of divine address in Jewish prayer are a repudiation of Roman claims…More than a language of piety, they constitute a terminology of protest and resistance…A significant number of the phrases in Avinu Malkeinu co-opt forms of addressing the emperor for the God of the covenant” (Naming God, p. 240).  

It is sort of wild to think that a metaphor that for so many of us represents a problematic, reactionary sort of power might have meant quite the opposite for our rabbinic forebears. Rabbi Akiva was a supporter of Bar Kochba, the leader of a 2nd century Jewish revolt against the Roman occupiers. His Avinu Malkeinu prayer, Rabbi Sasso contends, “reminds us that prayer can be subversive, a negation of accepted norms and practices.” (p. 242)

So what might the metaphor of God as king mean for us today? The feminist scholar and liturgist Catherine Madsen has this to say about real-life kings, and God as king. She writes:

“The picture is complicated; there is something in the office itself, for all its anachronism in the global corporate culture, that invites a kind of tenderness along with the awe and caution. And longing: we want someone with power and resources to think of our well-being. We may even want (whisper it!) someone to rule us: someone to govern our scattered energies for a high purpose, someone to belong to.” (Name of God, p. 186) 

Madsen’s words bring me back to being outdoors on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for the first inauguration of President Obama. I was able to go by virtue of being president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; our movement got a couple of tickets, and I received one. It was freezing cold, and the numbers of people were completely overwhelming. I was in a spot where I was too far away to see anything happening on the steps of the Capitol, but also too far up to see the big screens they’d set up for folks further back on the Mall. I could hear what was going on, and I had a lot of time to survey the massive crowd of people around me.  

Along with the incredible privilege of witnessing the inauguration of the first Black president of the United States, what struck me powerfully that day was a palpable yearning for leadership that I could sense in the crowd. It felt like a very sincere, deeply held collective desire: a wish to be led by someone who exhibited qualities of strength and wisdom. Whatever might have wrongly or rightly been projected onto President Obama in that moment, a human desire for powerful leadership felt tangible to me that morning.

So I agree with Madsen that sometimes we do indeed “want someone with power and resources to think of our well-being.” The image of God as king runs throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and it always comes in the context of a deep desire for things in the world to be better than they are. The liturgy speaks to the hope that there is Something powerful out there to which we can appeal to make the necessary changes, in ourselves and in the world around us. The metaphor of God as king invites us to reflect on what we desire to be ultimate in our lives. What, in our imaginations, do we wish ruled us? What are the higher powers we call upon in moments of distress? Where do we seek protection and comfort? 

Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our king: What happens when we bring these two metaphors together? Beginning in the midrashim of the early rabbis, and then expanded in Hasidic tradition, parables are told in which God is both king and father, and we are God’s royal children. There is a well-known Hasidic story about sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that goes like this:

There was a King who had an only son, the apple of his eye. The King wanted his son to master different fields of knowledge and to experience various cultures, so he sent him to a far-off country, supplied with a generous quantity of silver and gold. Far away from home, the son squandered all the money until he was left completely destitute. In his distress, he resolved to return to his father's house, and after much difficulty, he managed to arrive at the gate of the courtyard to his father's palace.
In the passage of time, he had actually forgotten the language of his native country, and he was unable to identify himself to the guards. In utter despair he began to cry out in a loud voice, and the king, who recognized the voice of his son, went out to him and brought him into the house, kissing him and hugging him.

The interpretation of the story is that the king is God, and the prince is us, the Jewish people. When we come into this world, we inevitably stray away from our divine Source. Our souls forget their “native language,” our innate ability to connect with the holiness within and around us. But, the story teaches, it’s okay; we don’t need to remember the language – because we have the shofar, which, when we sound it, reminds God that we are God’s children, and that we’re here, ready to come home. The shofar brings the divine to us.

This parable asks us to remember our own divine nature. Here, God as king is also God as loving parent. There is something of divinity that is our birthright, as human beings who are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image.

This brings me back to that story in the Talmud. After Rabbi Eliezer’s prayer for rain is ineffective, and Rabbi Akiva gets the job done, the rabbis in attendance get very agitated – because how could Akiva, the student, succeed where his elder and teacher,  the great Eliezer, had failed? So the story continues:

“A heavenly voice, a bat kol, came out and said: 'Not that this one (Akiva) is greater than that one (Eliezer). Rather this one passes over his character traits, ma’avir al middotav, and this one does not.'”

The phrase “passes over his character traits” is somewhat obscure, but it is generally understood to mean that where Rabbi Akiva was a model of compassion and love, Eliezer was quite the opposite – harsh, easily angered and difficult to comfort.  

The reference to Akiva’s “middot” – qualities or character traits – recalls a famous Biblical passage in the book of Exodus, where God reveals Godself to Moses through what we call the 13 Attributes, the divine middot Adonai Adonai el chanun v’rachum erekh apayim v’rav chesed v’emet – the Godly qualities of grace and compassion, patience and lovingkindness. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer suggests that Rabbi Akiva is a leader who mirrors God, or more precisely, he mirrors God as God should be. Because Akiva acts towards the people around him with care and compassion, he is able to arouse the same qualities in the Divine, and so the rain — a sign of divine love and care — falls. 

What Rabbi Akiva models for us, then, is not a cry to a distant, imperious, uncaring God. Quite the opposite: he challenges us to model godly qualities of compassion and lovingkindness, and to become conduits for those qualities here on earth. One of my inspirations and teachers, Ruth Messinger, says this about Avinu Malkeinu:

“I am focused on what I consider the essence of Avinu Malkeinu: an attempt to lay out all we want for a more perfect world to come about, including another immediate year of a good life for all. Its very repetition encourages us to use our prayer time to muse on these desires and ask some force in the world and in ourselves to make them come true.” (Name of God, p. 189)

 I’d like to close by looking at the final line of the prayer (p. 454):

Avinu malkeinu choneinu v’aneinu ki ain banu maasim, asei imanu tzedakah v’chesed v’hoshi’enu.

In our machzor, this is translated: “Avinu malkeinu, be gracious with us and respond to us, for we have no deeds to justify us; deal with us in righteousness and love, and save us now.”

There are two powerful phrases in here. The first is ki ain banu maa’sim – literally, “we have no deeds” – the translator here added the words “to justify us.” This phrase is usually taken to mean that there is nothing we have done or can actually do to merit divine grace. Despite our deficiencies, we say, please help us. And this is a powerful notion – because collectively, as a human race, we are indeed a bit of a mess. We need help.

The second phrase, asei imanu tzedekah v’chesed – is usually translated as a plea to God to deal with us, to act towards us, with justice and love. But more literally it means “make with us justice and love.” That is, we are partners in this endeavor, as Ruth Messinger teaches. We ask for help so that we can manifest the godly qualities of tzedek and chesed, righteousness and lovingkindness. 

Where this prayer leads me is to an experience of the divine as a kind of Awareness, a Compassionate Awareness in which we are held, in which we can reveal ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable. Ki ain banu ma’asim – we have no deeds – I understand this to mean not that “we are worthless”; rather, our being received in love is not conditional upon our actions. We are loved, we are held, in a way that is beyond the limitations of our ephemeral actions. As the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says, we are like grass, like clouds, like all things that arise and pass away. The divine is Something else – something eternal in which we are held. We have access to this when we can let go of our clinging to our own limitations. When we remember our divine nature, and our connection to everything around us, which shares in that divinity.  

So, whatever it is that you’d like to call out to over these Ten Days of Teshuvah, there is an invitation here to imagine That which receives your call in any way that works for you. Perhaps it helps to think of a loving and powerful parent or ancestor or teacher. Perhaps you want to direct this plea to your own heart. Or maybe it doesn’t even matter where you imagine the plea to be going; just sending our sincere wishes for wellbeing out into the universe has its own kind of power. May our prayers and our actions reflect the divinity within us, the divinity to which we aspire, in the new year. May it be so!


Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Rosh Hashanah 5783

Sun, July 21 2024 15 Tammuz 5784