Why Avinu Malkeinu is So Important After the Year We've Had
Every summer, I go through the same routine. Come early August, I open the High Holidays prayer book, the machzor, and review the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services rapidly approaching. All of the familiar readings and prayers are right where I left them, as if they were just waiting all year for this season to return. The sheer act of dusting off the cover and opening the book feels like a religious experience, as if I’m coming back to something timeless and true.
We have been preparing for our holiday season with great gusto at my synagogue. There are brochures to print, mailings to go out, volunteers to recruit, chairs to set up... I am writing sermons. The choir is rehearsing. Our readers are practicing. Our president is working on her remarks. It is a big, important season, for it takes us back to the heart of the Jewish experience: praying as one community in our sanctuary at the dawn of a brand new year.
The reading that has most spoken to me this summer has been Avinu Malkeinu. It’s one of those larger-than-life texts that we hear throughout Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. You know the one. You may already be humming the familiar tune.
I am thinking about it at length now because the words of it are so relevant and so powerful, maybe now more than ever. The imagery is of a mighty God above who serves as both a preeminent parent (Avinu) and a ruler (Malkeinu). Both terms are incidentally borrowed from the Book of Isaiah. The God of Avinu Malkeinu is a God that is both nearby and loving, like a parent, but also somehow removed and unknowable. No doubt we can relate, as we have experienced times of true closeness with God, as well as times when we wonder if God is there, listening.
The prayer dates back all the way to the Talmud, where Rabbi Akiva is recorded as having uttered a series of supplications that incorporated the familiar refrain. The traditional text has grown to a full 54 verses over the years. Reform Jewish prayer books have worked and re-worked these verses so that they remain relatable. Our text has us pray that God will “hear our voice,” “have compassion upon us and on our children,” “inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life,” “treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help.”
The reason the prayer resonates so fully this year is precisely because of the year we have had. The world of 2015 has so often been a scary place to live: tragedy and violence, civil war and persecution, unrest in Ferguson, murder in Charleston, murder at a movie theatre in Tennessee, murder of the young and innocent at the Jerusalem Gay Pride, racism, anti-Semitism, and of course a proposed nuclear deal with Iran that has many of us increasingly nervous for our beloved Homeland.
Avinu Malkeinu grounds us in faith and urges us to continue to believe in God and in good. It wants us to keep up the fight for justice and compassion in our world. It wants us to desperately resist cynicism and hate. It wants us to know that we each have it in us to do big things, great things. This is what the prayer is about and this is what our sacred holy days are, for me, all about.
From my family to yours, here is to a good, sweet new year.