Our Father, Our King?
Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father, Our King, is truly one of the most recognizable of all the Days of Awe liturgy (I am consciously avoiding the term 'High Holidays' as it is not a faithful rendition of the phrase, 'Yamim Norai'im'). It has been a staple poem for more than 1900 years.
The first mention of the prayer is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit 25b (that means it is on the obverse page of page 25 in the standard pagination of the Vilna edition of the Talmud, the pagination universally recognized as the standard). According to the Talmud, the poem traces its roots to the Second Century C.E. (Common Era). It is an appeal to God's mercy.
In the Talmud, the passage says, "Rabbi Eliezar once stood before the Ark [during a drought and famine] and recited the twenty-four benedictions for fast days but his prayer was not answered. Rabbi Akiva stood there after him and proclaimed, "Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King, we have no King but You; our Father, our King, have mercy upon us" - and rain began to fall.'
Every Days of Awe prayerbook since then has included this poem. And while the text slightly changes from service to service, there is a running theme of our culpability to sin and our communal responsibility.
In the Gates of Awe, the machzor that we have been using up to now, the Erev Rosh Hashanna Avinu Malkeinu had been translated exactly as the Hebrew was presented. 'Our Father, Our King, hear our voice. Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You. Our Father, Our King, have compassion upon us and our children, etc.'
In the Mishkan HaNefesh (the new Days of Awe prayerbook) the Hebrew is the same but the English is very different.
As an introduction to the prayer, there is a meditative ready. In the older machzor, the paragraph spoke of 'emptiness in those who cast You out!' and how 'Strange that men and women grow smaller without You...' It is an paragraph designed to elicit guilt. This makes sense, since the Days of Awe are about guilt and sin. But the new machzor tackled this prayer with a different approach. Instead of guilt and sin and emptiness, the new paragraph speaks about awe and God's presence. Here are two different readings that can introduce the prayer: its words:
Our Rock and Redeemer
Life of the Universe
Close to us always
Accepting our frailty
Decreeing our end
None of these are true
None of them are You
Yet we stand as those before us have stood
Summoned to judgement, longing for love
May these words be a bridge
They come from our hearts
May they lead us to You.
Avinu Malkeinu -
We stand in awe; we draw close in love
Avinu Malkeinu -
The Power that passes through us and pervades all things
Avinu Malkeinu -
The Divine the is present within and among us.
As you can see, the first reading places God within a set of characteristics. But it brings up the problem, how is it possible to define the impossible? Yet, even though words are impossible, words are all we have and like a hundred generations before us, we stand and pour out our hearts. Powerful stuff.
The second reading is a complete opposite to the reading in Gates of Awe. There is no sense of unworthiness and being a failure. It is a plea to let the words enter our hearts and, by doing so, allows us to be filled with the love of God, not simply the fear of God.
This fundamental shift in looking at the liturgy in a profoundly different way will, we hope, deepen the meaning and the connection for you, the worshipper. In doing so, the deeper dimension of real prayer can happen in ways that were not evident in the past. Those 'set up' words and the words of the new translation will make this prayer - a prayer profoundly important - spring forth in our souls and give us a more meaningful avenue to listen to the Voice of God.