Linda Hirschhorn
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Reclaiming Avinu Malkeinu (5769)

© 2008..2009 Linda Hirschhorn

Delivered at Temple Beth Sholom - San Leandro

I got that letter from the water board a few weeks back —the one I am sure you have all gotten— telling us we are in a drought and water rationing will begin. If we use anything above our allotted allowance, we pay a penalty.

What does this have to do with the High Holidays?

I. Origins

It is told that during the early part of the 2nd century, there was a terrible drought in ancient Israel, and the people turned to Rabbi Eliezer, a powerful, pious scholar, and asked him to pray the prayers for rain. Rabbi Eliezer was the one who once made a carob tree move several yards, and who got a river to flow upstream —just to prove a point and to prove that God was on his side— but he was often overruled by the Rabbis, which would make him furious. Rabbi Eliezer spent days in meditation, fasting, preparing himself to pray for rain; and when he was ready, he poured his heart out in passionate prayer with the whole community behind him watching, but nothing happened.

Suddenly, Rabbi Akiva jumps up from his place and cries out

”אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶך אֶלָּא אָתָּה. אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ.“
’Àvinu Malkénu, ’éin lànu mèlèch ’èlà’ ’Àtàh. ’Àvinu Malkénu ‘aséh ‘imànu lema‘an shmèchà.
“Our Father, our King, there is no other sovereign but You. Our Father, our King, do with us for your name's sake.”

Immediately the rains began pouring, and it was said that God was more willing to hear Rabbi Akiva's prayer because he was able to forgive those who wronged him. These two lines are the opening to the prayer that we say today.

II. Themes

אָבִינוּ, Avinu, our Father; מַלְכֵּנוּ, Malkeinu, our King. Two words that are symbols of the main theme of these High Holidays: forgiveness and judgement. Avinu, the close, loving, compassionate, intimate parent. Malkeinu, the distant, strict, stern ruler who metes out justice. (See Rabbi Barry H. D. Block, Avinu Malkeinu: Divine Oxymoron.) God represented as two personality archetypes: forgiving parent; strict, critical judge.

One of the world's best known linguists, George Lakoff from here in Oakland, has described a serious divide in our national psyche between those citizens who want their leaders to follow the model of the strong and strict parent and those who look for the nurturing, empathic parent as if we believe that these are mutually exclusive traits. Avinu Malkeinu suggests the two traits are not irreconcilable.

The other night I was watching the movie Batman Begins. At the beginning of the movie, we see the hero, Bruce Wayne, undergoing years of martial arts training —mental, emotional and physical strengthening— all to avenge his parents' death and to fight injustice in Gotham. Bruce Wayne's teacher, Ra'as al Ghul, says to him: “Your one weakness is your compassion. To fight for justice you mustn't show any compassion.” One of the major battles of the movie is not your stereotypical action-movie battle between good and evil but between the Ra'as al Ghul version of justice-without-compassion and the Batman version of justice-with compassion. (No surprise that Batman's creators, Robert Kahn and Bill Finger, were Jewish.) Batman —a figure whose strength comes not from any superpowers but from his own character development— of course, wins the battle.

Avinu Malkeinu is not about superheroes or just about divine attributes. It is the model by which we judge our own and each other's behaviour. It is the challenge to balance honest, critical assessment with lovingkindness. Do we judge too harshly, or can we combine our judgment with compassion and forgiveness? Are we too forgiving, too compassionate, so that we never grow and change and learn from our mistakes? Do we forget to set boundaries with others and forget to establish the rules whereby communities survive and thrive? Avinu Malkeinu is about finding that right balance.

III. The Collective

Rabbi Akiva prayed ”אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ, “Avinu Malkeinu”, in the first person plural: “our Father, our King”, because he was praying on behalf of the community. But if you look through the entire High-Holiday liturgy, all of the confessionals are in the first person plural; there is nothing in the first person singular: no עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאתִּי, ‘al khét’ shèkhàt’àti, no אָשַׁמְתִּי, בָּגַדְתִּי, , ’àshamti, bàgadeti —no I have transgressed or I have made mistakes— which tells us that everything we do takes place in the context of community, and everything we do has its repercussions even when not visible to us. This notion may make us uneasy —we can't really get away with anything— and we all bear this awesome responsibility for what happens to every one of us. Yet by the same token, it is also reassuring in that we all share in this responsibility.

However, one of the things that happens when we daven our litany of confessions is that we find ourselves confessing to misdeeds that most of us have never committed: we confess to murder, to violence, to bribery. It reinforces the notion that we are responsible for everything that happens, and that we are our brothers', sisters' and planet's keepers. So, for instance, what happens to our water supply and what happens with the shifts in climate that may cause droughts is to a great extent up to each and every one of us. We pray in the plural, together, and on behalf of each other.

IV. Humility vs. Pride

Rabbi Akiva prayed ”אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ.“ ’Àvinu Malkénu ‘aséh ‘imànu lema‘an shmèchà — Our Parent, our Ruler, do with us for the sake of Your name — for the sake of God's name, as manifested for us in creation. And the rabbis explained what he meant by adding the two closing lines that we sing, which begin with the words ”אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ חָנֵּנוּ וַעֲנֵנוּ כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעֲשִׂים“’Àvinu Malkénu khànénu va‘anénu ki ’éin bànu ma'asim” — “be gracious and answer us because we don't have the deeds”. What exactly does this mean?

On the one hand we are saying we haven't done enough that the universe should be saved on account of our acts. This make us feel so bereft — nothing we ever do will be enough. But on the other hand, paradoxically, in the same breath we are saying that we don't have to prove ourselves. Compassion is ours for the asking because we are alive and part of creation. What a liberating uplifting notion! It doesn't release us from our good works but we don't have to keep a tally of our good works to merit God's mercy.

The Rabbis teach that you should carry two notes in your pockets: In one pocket, it should say “for my sake the world was created”; We look at this one when we are feeling down, when we feel inadequate. And in the other pocket, the note should say “I am but dust and ashes”; We look at that one when we are feeling too self-important. I checked my pockets the other day: In one pocket there were some ideas for this sermon that I'd scribbled on the back of an envelope, and in the other pocket was a receipt from Safeway for a can of garbanzo beans and a quart of milk.

Just when I think I'm being terribly clever I remember I've got to get dinner ready. Just when it feel's like there will never be anything more to my life than the cycle of shopping and eating I remember this awesome responsibility you've given me to inspire you on these holy days.

V. Partnership

”אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶסֶד“, “’Àvinu Malkénu ‘aséh ‘imànu tsedàqàh vàkhèsèd” — “Our Father, our King, make justice and compassion with us; The interesting word here is עִמָּנוּ, ‘imànu — with us. It could have said עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ, ‘aséh lànu —do for us, or עֲשֵׂה עַלֵינוּ, ‘aséh ‘aléinu —do on us, as in עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עַלֵינוּ, ‘osèh shàlom ‘aléinu —make peace on us. Do with us tells that we are in partnership with God, fulfilling the potential of the universe with our good deeds. Creation is ongoing and requires our participation. It is not enough to pray for justice and compassion. We must act with justice and compassion. As Batman's girlfriend, Rachel, the district attorney, says, “It's what you do that defines you.”

VI. The Rest of the Prayer

Over the centuries, in addition to the closing lines, the Rabbis added more verses to Rabbi Akiva's short prayer: Sephardic prayerbooks go up to 32, Jews of Salonika have 53. I have a copy of my mother's old Hebrew-German makhzor, printed in 1903; It follows the Polish tradition of 44 petitions. The Sim Shalom makhzor that we use has 30.

The 30 petitions in our Avinu Malkeinu are grouped along several themes: In the first grouping, God's help is asked for in combating external forces: our enemies, tyrants, plagues, famines.

We then ask God for internal wholeness of body and spirit.

In the center of the prayer, there is a series of petitions that asks God to remember or inscribe or seal us in the books of happiness, redemption, prosperity, merit and forgiveness.

The next set of petitions looks to the future, when the people of Israel are exalted, when all our prayers are heard, and we and our children merit God's bountiful blessings.

And the last section, before our famous melody, is dedicated to all those who have died for their Jewishness, so that their deaths are not in vain.

I have to say, I think all of these additions have diminished the prayer. When Rabbi Akiva prayed, he asked for nothing. Not even rain. Feeling vulnerable and powerless, he subjected himself to God's mercy with no expectations of what would happen.

Recently, I joined an improvisational theater troupe. It's one of the scariest things I've signed onto lately. I jump out on stage and have no idea what I am going to say. Somebody else might jump out with me and together we have to discover who we are, what we are to each other, and what we are doing there. We start in complete mystery — We have to tune into every breath, to every nuance of a physical gesture, and explore our own emotions and reactions to them. We are completely focused in the present. The discovery of who and what we are, when it comes, is always surprising, and fills us with wonder. We revel in rev-elation as we learn something new about ourselves.

In trusting my partner, in trusting the truth of my own feelings and giving up control over the moment, I receive the blessing of experiencing life as fresh and new.

For my birthday this year, my sweetie, Andreas, gave me a GPS navigator, and of course I love it. It means I never get lost. True, sometimes I find myself arguing with her (my GPS is a female) “Why didn't you warn me to turn sooner?”, “Why did you send me up this dead end?” — and I realize that she may not have all the answers, and I may need to pay more attention to the signs I've passed along the way.

But what I really want to say to you today is that sometimes it really is good to allow yourself to be lost. It's only when you are lost that you allow for the possibility of finding something new. Perhaps God heard Rabbi Akiva's prayer not only because he was more forgiving than Rabbi Eliezer, but because he was more open, more willing to acknowledge being lost, to not being the expert. He didn't come with a list of demands. He came trusting, ready to receive whatever might be given. When you relinquish expectations, life itself is a gift.

Can you turn the GPS off sometimes? Can you let yourselves be lost? What if you didn't know what you were praying for? What if you let yourself feel the fear of not knowing what's coming next? Can you dwell in mystery, and trust that it's the only way to see life with fresh eyes?

When the rabbis added their shopping lists: give us health, give us wealth, destroy my enemies, bless our children, justify our sacrifices…, they were no longer approaching God with humility. It's as if they had lost their faith and now had to keep their hands on the controls; as if they they had to know in advance our destination and all that we would need to get there. In doing so, they were undercutting the power and meaning of Rabbi Akiva's original trusting prayer, foreclosing on the possibility of experiencing revelation and wonder.

VII. The Melody

When I originally decided to write my sermon about Avinu Malkeinu, my main interest was in this glorious melody we all love that we sing at the end. I've always known it as ‘traditional’. But traditional from where? I had a vague sense that it might have been based on an old Yiddish folk tune; I wondered what that song was: what was its original set of words, when did the melody get adapted for this prayer?

It turns out that the custom used to be to sing the petitions out loud, and the last two lines, the ones that we love to sing, to say those in silence. Rabbi Gerald Serotta (U'kratem Dror Baaretz) tells the story that the Dubner Maggid used, to explain why this was so: The Maggid compared us to the shopkeeper who visits a supply store once a year and gets so excited by all the things he can buy that he points to them all and says loudly “Give me this, give me that,”, and then discovers he can't pay for them. So in embarrassment, he whispers to the cashier: “Can you give me credit? I promise to pay you next year if I have a good year.“ According to the Dubner Maggid, when we think of all the things we'd like to have in the New Year, we call out loud: “Avinu Malkeinu, give us health, give us wealth, etc.”. But when we come to the last sentence, we realize how little merit we have, so we whisper: “Have pity on us, give us everything on credit; we'll try harder in the new year to justify your faith in us and pay You back.”

But at some point a couple of hundred years ago, the tradition changed, and we began to sing this verse out loud. I wondered why this was so. Perhaps we stopped feeling embarrassed; perhaps we felt more confident in our ability to fulfill our part of the bargain. Perhaps we needed to cry out for mercy together, in public, as a community. Or perhaps we finally realized that what was important was not what we were asking for but simply that we were asking.

But where did this melody come from? I posted the question on line to the various cantors' networks that I'm on. The answers came back: “The melody is traditional. the prayer was written by Rabbi Akiva.” I asked Joshua Jacobsen, Professor of Jewish Music at Hebrew College in Boston, and his response was: “Good question! I've always wanted to know that myself. Let me know what you find out!” I asked Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, head of the Music Department at Gratz College in Philadelphia; She said she had no idea. Finally I asked Velvel Pasternak of Tara Publications — my ultimate resource, the man who has been publishing and collecting Jewish music for close to 50 years. “‘Traditional’”, he says, “means no one knows.” And perhaps, in the end, this is most fitting. This melody, ascribed to no one, becomes a collective prayer that belongs to us all. And here is the odd thing, the final paradox, if you will: When we lift our voices and sing this refrain out loud together, over and over, layering in our harmonies, we become more confident, even as we acknowledge our powerlessness. Singing this melody strengthens us, readies us, to face the unknown and embrace the new year.

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