Avinu Malkeinu Or To Whom It May Concern

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5770

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Let’s begin with a little word association game. When I say, “I have a little dreidel,” you think of what holiday? _____. Dadayenu and you think ______. Kol Nidre: _____. Last in our game: Avinu Malkeinu: ________.

Certain words, phrases or melodies automatically connect us, transport us, link us to moments in time. However, when we recite and hear the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, as we will in a few moments, it is important to realize that this is much more than a wonderful melody. It speaks to the heart of what this day is all about: how we relate to God and what is really important in our lives.

Some resonate to the literal message. For others, the words of this prayer may be theologically challenging, disconcerting, problematic, even upsetting. Our ancestors understood that when speaking of and to God, words merely open doors of communication. While they are all we have, we recognize that they are limiting. Historically, Avinu Malkeinu has been a prominent path to addressing God, loaded with multiple meanings. But if this particular salutation offends you, feel free to direct your comments and thoughts “To Whom It May Concern.” Let’s explore the possibilities together this morning.

According to the Talmud, during a drought, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, leader of the community, declared a day of fasting. He offered his prayers continually, but to no avail. Then one of the young rabbis, Akiba, by name, came forward. He began with the now familiar phrase: “Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, we have no King but You. Our Father our King, for Your sake have compassion upon us.” He concluded his petition and the heavens opened up. The Talmud goes on to explain that while both were great Rabbis, Akiba’s prayer was answered, because of his humility.

What are we saying in this prayer? Literally, Avinu is “our father” and Malkeinu is “our King.” Like much of our prayer language, God is described with male metaphors, but limitations of language ought not confuse us. Judaism has long maintained that God has no body. If God has no body, then how can God be a Father or a King? Clearly these are metaphors for God. We utilize the Hebrew, even in the English translation to come closer to its original meaning.

When we pronounce “Avinu Malkeinu,” in one phrase we are linking two opposite aspects of God- God’s closeness and intimacy as opposed to God’s transcendence and distance. Avinu speaks of God as a parent figure, a loving, caring creator, concerned about every aspect of our being. Related to this idea is one of God’s other names: Av Harachaman- God the compassionate one, with that word “rachaman” having definite feminine connections. These are all personal concepts, a God to whom we can pray, speak and relate in a direct fashion.

On the other hand, we have Malkeinu- our ruler. God is the standard setter, the God of justice and righteousness, who establishes the norms by which we live, the fundamental values for a just society. And at this time of year we think of God as the Judge. Rabbi Jacob Petachowski teaches that God as Melech is a way of saying that there is ultimate righteous rule in the world, as opposed to despotic kings/emperors from the past or the despots of our time.

These depict God, who is remote from us personally, but very much part of our world. Thus when we say Avinu Malkeinu we simultaneously embrace God’s immanence and transcendence. We can choose to relate to God in either fashion or both.

Then we begin our specific requests of God. Depending upon the mahzor, there are as many as 53 verses to this prayer. We present God with a shopping list of requests: forgiveness, pardon, renewal, compassion on us and our children, end of oppression, war, sickness and famine; strength for our people; answer our prayers and of course inscription in the Books of happy life; redemption and salvation; sustenance; merit; and forgiveness. Some think of it as in the fairy tales, “ask and God, the magical genie will grant our wishes” Others present their petitions, knowing full well that the act alone is a clarifying moment. My perspective is that our petitions can be a bit of each. We are permitted to hope for miracles and fulfillment, but simultaneously begin the work ourselves.

What is it that we want from God that we feel we need extra assistance to attain it? Let me suggest a few, which are not the usual health, wealth and well-being.

Too many people live by the value of “if it’s good for me, then I can do whatever I please.”  And so, let us pray: Avinu Malkeinu- guide us to live with integrity. Integrity demands the ability to face ourselves in the mirror and be able to say that we lead lives based upon values, teachings and morals of justice and decency, that our actions are consistent with those values. Most of the time, this should not be too challenging. However, there are moments when self-interest can push us away from paths of righteousness. We veer from what we know to be proper conduct because we want the lost object we found, the promotion at work, the leadership of that organization, that girlfriend or boyfriend, to be victorious. There is nothing wrong with desire or ambition, as long as we keep it in check, and achieve our goals with integrity.

Avinu Malkeinu- grant us strength to face adversity. We all confront difficult moments in life. No one is exempt: illness for ourselves or loved ones, broken relationships, unemployment, issues of aging, shattered dreams, loneliness, thwarted goals, death, disappointments, loss of self-confidence, frustration, the feeling that life is overwhelming. Most of the time we feel self-sufficient, but even the strongest of individuals needs support in adversity. We do not ask God to resolve our problems, to remove the pain, but when our personal batteries are low, our energy levels depleted, we can seek a boost in our spiritual resources. Often, simply the request reminds us that there is a source of assistance and we are not alone.

Avinu Malkeinu- open us to the needs of others. Friends, it can’t be all about me, my wants, my desires, my needs, my problems, for if it is, then we are leading shallow lives and are probably not very happy. It can start at home with our husbands and wives and partners, our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Sadly, we are all too often least sensitive to those who are near and dear. Let us not forget those beyond our own doors. In our community there are so many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others: children to benefit from tutors, structures to rebuild, illnesses to cure, elders to visit, synagogue programs to plan, homeless to assist. The list is endless and the reward is great, adding meaning to our days.

Later in our worship as we read the traditional list, I will pause prior to the final line in our prayer to allow you to share some of your additional wishes either silently or aloud.

Yet all versions end with Akiba’s humble perspective: we are not really worthy- ein banu maasim- we have no deeds, at least not any that stack up to God’s. “What do you mean, ‘I am not deserving’? I’m ‘nothing or without merit?” Rather, we are powerful; the world revolves around us. We consider ourselves as the last word, the ultimate authority and refrain from relinquishing autonomy to anyone. Rabbi Yoel Kahn points out, “What does not work for so many today is the continual emphasis on God’s absolute power and our own frailty- an imagery of imbalance that is fundamentally dissonant with how we experience ourselves in the world and with our core Reform Jewish teachings about human responsibility and engagement.” Some call these old traditional Jewish beliefs a “theology of human inadequacy.” It simply does not resonate with many 21st century Jews.

In contrast I would describe what many desire to be a “theology of partnership,” even equality, where God has a voice over our actions, but not a veto. God is our Friend, Teacher, Confidante, Buddy, but not Ruler or Superior. God can Judge, but we render the verdict.

So when we pray this essential prayer of the Holy Days, how shall we approach it? How will we relate to God: Father, King, Parent, Sovereign, Intimate One who cares for me, Transcendent One of the universe, Source of order, Wellspring of values, or with an open, but questioning heart and seeking mind, “To Whom It May Concern.” Ours are mere words and thoughts. All imagery reflects God, but ultimately does not limit God.

Then, let us remember that this prayer is one in which we present our requests, our petitions, our desires before God. Ira Eisenstein, a leading Reconstructionist Rabbi teaches, it is not so much to whom we are praying, but for what we are praying that is clarifying. When we pray the words, we recognize that there is always the possibility that we can change and our world can be transformed for the better.

And who are we that we even ask, seek, hope for something better? Ein banu maasim- Do we, limited by lack of righteous acts and worthy deeds in our personal portfolio, really have standing, a right to present our petitions? In a time when everyone emphasizes self-esteem, positive self-image, our tradition calls for humility, not necessarily exclusive of one another. We may be good, but we are never as good as we think we are or could be.

Still, we turn to Avinu Malkeinu and ask, invoking God’s attributes of tsedakah- justice and chesed-mercy, we hope You are listening. Judgment is taking place, if not by God, at least we are judging ourselves. This prayer reminds us of our fragility, but it also presents the positive message that God, however envisioned, wants us to succeed. God is rooting for us, as we root for ourselves. The story is told:

A retail merchant who dealt in fabrics made his way to a wholesale supplier to buy the goods he needed for his business. The wholesaler instructed his workers to wait on the merchant and to bring him all that he ordered. Standing in the middle of the warehouse, the merchant bellowed all sorts of orders and requests.

“I want 1,000 yards of that cloth, 2,000 yards of the blue velvet, 3,000 yards of that white silk,” he shouted, and on and on he went, requesting many other items. When it came time to reckon up the price of the goods and to pay the bill, the merchant took the wholesaler to the side and, very embarrassed, whispered in his ear: “Listen, I can’t give you any money for this right now. Please allow me credit until I can pay you.”

So it is with us, said the Dubno Maggid, an 18th century Rebbe: We shout out all sorts of requests to God in the Avinu Malkenu prayer. We want forgiveness, health, a good life, wealth, redemp­tion, and many other things. But when it comes down to the last verse (to pay the bill, so to speak), we whisper: “Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds (with which to pay You for our large order) please grant us tsedakah and kindness, and save us.” *

May the words we humbly recite have meaning for us on this day.


Now let us pray:

* –Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, known as the Maggid of Dubno, a Hassidic master and teacher (1741-1804). Reprinted from Aaron Levine’s The New Rosh Hashanah Anthology, published by Zichron Meir Publications.





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