Yom Kippur Sermon

Sep 20, 2021 | Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader, Sermons

Avinu Malkeinu in 5782

As you hear the beautiful notes that Cantor Marer just sang, what comes to mind? Is it hearing the Avinu Malkeinu a specific location? Was it a particular High Holy Days when this prayer was especially meaningful to you? Was it who was sitting next to you when you last heard it? Take a moment and really think about it.  What does the Avinu Malkeinu mean to you?

One of the most profound moments of the High Holy Days, is when we, as a community, stand and recite the Avinu Malkeinu together.  In these words and melodies we can truly feel the power of these Days of Awe.  Despite the physical distance between us today, there is still power in the ritual of praying the Avinu Malkeinu together.

A spiritual experience of mine occurred many years ago and when the day before Rosh Hashanah I went rock climbing with some friends.  We spent the day climbing and hiking. We enjoyed the nature’s beauty and each other’s company.  The next day, in services I was inspired by hearing the congregation chant these ancient words together.  It hit me in that moment that along with the individual process of the High Holy Days, I need the communal moments, especially the pleas for a better year within the Avinu Malkeinu.

It is commonly thought that the Avinu Malkeinu originated in the first centuries of the common era.  It is found in rabbinic debate in the Talmud.  In the Talmud, rain is a metaphor for God providing for us.  In this conversation, Rabbi Elizer ben Hyrcanus is pleading with God to make the rain fall.  To do so, he recites the Amidah in the hopes it will bring rain.  However his efforts were not successful and the rain did not come.  When the story continues, Rabbi Akiva asks God for rain with these words.  He said: “Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our king, we have sinned against you.  Our father our king, we have no king other than You.  Our father, our king, for your sake have mercy upon us.

Sound familiar? And after these words, you guessed it, the rain fell and we still recite these words as part of our prayer today. Part of the power of the Avinu Malkeinu is in the musical setting for it. You might have grown up with a specific version of it, and that is the one that makes it feel like you are hearing the Avinu Malkeinu.  Our wonderful Cantor and choir add to this long tradition of creating memories into connection with this prayer.

In truth numerous composers have set the it to music.  If you are curious about some of the range of settings, you can look on You Tube and you will be amazed at the variety of settings and musical accompaniments you will find. I warn you from experience that this is a rabbit hole you can get sucked into.  You might want to see just one more setting and then realize half an hour has quickly passed. Recently, I showed my children various setting of the Avinu Malkeinu and I asked them to pick their favorite setting.  They were not captivated by the version sung by Barbara Steisand which is likely familiar to many of you, instead they preferred the lesser known version of it by the jam band Phish. Yes, the Jewish members of this popular band have set Avinu Malkeinu to music, and even perform it in their live sets.  Perhaps the Phish version, or another of the renditions of this prayer will be meaningful to you.  If you find one that is, I would love to hear about your favorite.

Cantor Marer just sang a few notes of a popular setting of Avinu Malkeinu this morning.  This melody, commonly called “Folk version,” was intentionally written to “sound Jewish” and to be sung communally.  The congregation is supposed to actively participate in the singing of this melody along with the cantor and choir.  This version emphasizes the communal nature of this prayer and our desire to connect one another.   In singing this melody I feel connected to my community, previous generations of Jews and to Jews around the world singing it today.  Perhaps you have had this feeling too.

The version Cantor Marer and the choir are going to sing this morning was composed by Max Janowksi only two or three generations ago.  You might imagine that this melody accompanied Moses down from Mount Sinai, but it actually only dates to the mid 20th century.  In this melody gives voice to our deepest yearnings, hopes and fears. At the center of this setting is a heartbeat putting to music the feelings we hide during the rest of the year, but directly confront during these holy days. Listen for that heartbeat when we share this prayer in a few moments.  When the Cantor sings this version of the Avinu Malkeinu with its haunting beauty, we are moved to tears.  Our deep soul searching, the difficult questions we ask and the promises we make are vocalized in the intensity of the music.

Avinu Malkeinu Shema Kolenu
Avinu Malkeinu hear our voice
Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer Chayim tovim
Avinu Malkeinu enter our names into the Book of Lives Well Lived
Avinu Malkeinu chadeish aleinu shanah tovah
Avinu Malkeinu renew us for a year of goodness.
Avinu Malkeinu, Avinu Malkeinu,

We recite this prayer collectively, while reflecting individually on our hopes for the year ahead. Even though I look forward to hearing the power of the Avinu Malkeinu each year, I find it problematic too.  My struggles with in this prayer was highlighted for me in the form of a High Holy Days coloring book for children I saw recently. Picture this in your minds. At the top of the page of this book was written in Hebrew Avinu Malkeinu and below it was a picture of an old man with a beard and a crown on his head.  He is sitting on a throne holding a book in one hand and a scepter in the other.

While this picture is a literal translation of from Hebrew to English of Avinu Malkeinu meaning our Father our King, it illustrates theological problems with this and other High Holy Day prayers. To begin with, the term ‘our father’ is problematic for me and I can imagine many of you.  I do not think of God in “male” gendered language.  This feel both off-putting and exclusionary.  The hyper “masculine” qualities assigned to God, are often the ones I find the most problematic, least comforting and unrelatable on a personal level.  While acknowledge the power of the paternal metaphor for God, but I remain uncomfortable with the image of God as our collective father.

Malkeinu, our king, is troublesome for a variety of reasons as well including the roles that kings have played in destruction of lives and lands throughout history. The kings were often power hungry tyrants, not exactly the image of God we want to relate to today.  I do think of myself as a subject to a God who need to be worshiped as many of the kings did.  In addition, as Americans most of us have not lived under the reign of a monarch, especially not a king.

In addition to these issues with these metaphors, my biggest struggle is with the role of God in deciding our fate that it depicts.  I, and I can imagine many of you, disagree with the idea that God is sitting in the sky with the two books: the book of life and the other and deciding which one to write our names in.  According to this thinking God is reviewing our behavior over the past year and then deciding if we have earned the right to live another year. While we do not control the length of our days, I do not believe in a God rates us in this way rewarding the worthy with another year of life. We all know people who have died too young and experienced the unfairness of death.   Taken literally, this seems to present God in ways we simply don’t believe today.   Over the past year and a half, we have seen so much death and suffering from to the pandemic and other societal plagues.  The current situation in our world, reinforces my, and I would guess many of your, dislike of this theology.

So, given all of these issues with the Avinu Malkeinu, how do we find meaning in this prayer, despite its problematic theology and images of God? I think every person will have a different answer to this question, but for me it leads to many other profound questions about the role of prayer, God and tradition in our lives. For example:  are we comfortable saying prayers that run counter to our beliefs because it is tradition?  Should we simply separate our intellect from our spiritual selves on these Holy Days?

There are countless answers to these questions.  I am going to offer a few and I hope you find one that works for you.  It is suggested that the metaphor of Avinu Malkeinu represents our different relationships with God.  We have the parental and personal connection with God embodied in the term Avinu. This is the God that we feel like we can pray to and connect with individually.  Malkeinu represents more of a communal God.  God, that we as a whole people, have journeyed with for thousands of years.  In combination we have our representations of our individual and communal God.

Others answer this question by changing the language of the prayer.  Instead of Avinu Malkeinu, we put translate them into the female forms of the words, our mother our queen.  Some prayer book alternate: one line with our father, our king, and the next our mother, our queen.  Others are use the non-gendered language our parent, our sovereign.

For me, I continue to struggle with the theology and imagery in this prayer, but that is a meaningful part of the High Holy Days.  Each year this process helps me think about my theology, my prayer life and my spirituality.  Thinking about the meaning of these prayers helps me focus on what happened in the past year and what I am hoping for the year ahead.  While I will never be fully comfortable with the images in the Avinu Malkeinu, I would not want to change it either.  Wrestling with these questions every year is important as our answers change throughout our lives.

It is a reminds us that our days are finite, but how we live them is up to us.  We say this prayer to God, but also to ourselves focusing on what we can do in the year ahead to live as our best selves.

Avinu Malkeinu Shema Kolenu
Avinu Malkeinu hear our voice
Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer Chayim tovim
Avinu Malkeinu enter our names into the Book of Lives Well Lived
Avinu Malkeinu chadeish aleinu shanah tovah
Avinu Malkeinu renew us for a year of goodness.

One of the most important aspects of the Avinu Malkeinu is the hope that I see written into each line.  This hope is inspiring and challenging us to help create the changes we want to see.

We hope the new year will be good year for us, our loved ones and the world. Hope is an incredibility powerful force.  It can help us heal, get us through difficult moments and inspire us. It has been medically well documented that hope can have a profound impact on a patient’s ability to heal.  There are a lot of other factors in patient care, but hope can be an important criterion in determining the outcome.  Perhaps doctors should prescribe hope along with medicine to assist in patient recovery.

The Indo-European root of the hope word comes from the word “koy” which means a change in direction or going a different way.  This means that there is an inherent link between the concepts of hope and change.  At its core, hope is filled with the possibility for change.  He continues that is the connection between hope and change that propels us to strive for a better future. That is exactly what is Avinu Malkeinu is articulating for us.  This prayer is vocalizing our hopes, longings and dreams for the new year.   Almost all of the lines, begins with the words Avinu Malkeinu and then continues with an ask of God.

Avinu Malkeinu have compassion on us and our families
Avinu Malkeinu renew us for us a year of goodness
Avinu Malkeinu welcome our prayer with love, accept and embrace it.

We hope, pray, beg and plead for God to make all of these wishes a reality.  We long for God, whatever our God concept is, to protect us our loved ones and our world. We are making these asks of God, but we are also making them of ourselves.  The prayer is articulating how we can think about our lives in the New Year so we can make these requests a reality.

Avinu Malkeinu Shema Kolenu
Avinu Malkeinu hear our voice

This means that we hope that God hears our prayers, but we also that we can hear one another’s voices, in prayer, and in the world.  This is a plea to ourselves so we hear, really hear the voice of others.  It is reminding us that we need to be there, present and supportive of the people in our lives and try to hear the voice of people who walk in the world differently than we do. Yes it is a plea for God to hear our voice, to say what is important, but also to hear, and listen to the voice of others.

Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer Chayim tovim
Avinu Malkeinu enter our names into the Book of Lives Well Lived

We ask God to write our names into the book of life, but more importantly to be a reminder to ourselves to live spend our time so we are living a good life.  As we reflect on our lives each year, we have the opportunity to make changes so we are living a meaningful life and well lived life.  Yes, we want to length of our days to continue in the year ahead, but this line is reminding us to use the time that we have to live a well lived life.

Avinu Malkeinu malei yadeinu mibirchotecha
Avinu Malkeinu let our hands overflow with Your blessings.

This is an ask for us to notice and appreciate all of the blessing that are around us.  We know now more than ever that we can’t predict what is going to happen in any year, but we can approach whatever comes our way through the perspective of finding blessings.  We hope to live 5782 with overflowing blessings all around us.

We can take each line of the Avinu Malkeinu as a plea to God, but also as a reminder to ourselves about how we want to live our lives in the 5782.  It is teaching us that we can live so we hear each other’s voices, reduce the suffering in the world, treat each other with compassion, see the blessing around us, live our lives well, and so much more.  It is asking us to bring out the best in ourselves and each other.  We cannot passively wait for changes to occur, but it is on us to actively do our part to make them happen.

We ask this of God, ourselves and each other.   We can use the words of the Avinu Malkeinu to inspire, challenge and guide as make these pleas of God a reality to how we live in year ahead.

Avinu Malkeinu – Almight and Merciful
Answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting
Save us through acts of justice and love.
Avinu Malkeinu choneinu va-aneinu
Ki ein banu massin
Aseih imanu tz’dakah vachesed
V’hoshienu

Amen

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