For Erev Rosh HaShanah this year, I want to offer a bit of a deep dive into the prayer avinu malkeinu. Our Beit Avodah - the team of amazing folks who develop these services - thought about avinu malkeinu this year as we do every few years when Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur fall on shabbat, as Rosh HaShanah does this year. Shabbat shalom.
In the past, we have followed the tradition that Avinu Malkeinu is not said on shabbat, but upon more research this year, we discovered that this prohibition is not universal.
These nuances date back many hundreds of years, but I will focus on where they intertwined in what became the ultimate code book of Jewish customs and laws, still used today.
R’ Yosef Karo was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488. As a four year old his family became refugees fleeing the expulsion from Spain, and his family moved to Portugal where only five years later they would become refugees a second time. The Ottoman Empire welcomed many of the refugees from these expulsions, and R’ Karo spent time in Morocco, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Egypt on his way to Tzafad in the Ottoman Galilee in what is today the north of Israel/Palestine.
He grew to regional and then world fame amongst Torah scholars and his work, the Shulchan Arukh, or Set Table, became and still remains to this day one of the most important and authoritative texts on Jewish practice, custom, and law.
Meanwhile, born in Krakow, Poland, 42 years after R’ Karo, R’ Moses Isserles, who became one of the pre-eminent Torah scholars of European Jewry, was asked to add his gloss to the Shulchan Arukh, noting where R’ Karo’s work differed from the Ashkenazi tradition at the time. His addition to the Shulchan Arukh - the Set Table, became known as HaMapa, or, the table cloth.
It is only in the Ashkenazi HaMapa that we find the prohibition from reciting Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat and in fact many Sephardi and Mizrachi communities indeed recite the prayer when Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur occur on shabbat. Tomorrow, we will recite avinu malkeinu on rosh hashanah and on shabbat, in line with this, centering those ancestors and their descendants among us.
In terms of content, Avinu Malkeinu had much to say to me this year. And despite the analogy of G-d to “our father, our king” to which the Kadima Machzor says “some of us may not feel comfortable with the concept of G-d as parent and sovereign,” - indeed - it was what followed this formulation that continues to give me pause this year.
The first formulation of Avinu Malkeinu can be found in Ta’anit 25b of the Babylonian Talmud, compiled around 550 in what is today Iraq, nearly 1000 years before Rs’ Karo and Isserles. The story goes that the community was facing a terrible drought. No rain would come. Rabbi Eliezer, an established teacher at the time, decreed a series of 13 fast days to encourage the heavens to open. When no rain came on the 13th day, R’ Eliezer encouraged his community to prepare their graves, for water, quite literally, was life. It was only when his community began to weep at his words that the skies opened and rain came. On another occasion, Rabbi Eliezer prayed for the end of another drought and was left unanswered. His student, Rabbi Akiva, came before the ark and prayed: ‘Avinu Malkeinu, there is no king but you. Avinu Malkeinu, for your sake, have compassion on us!’ And the skies immediately opened. When the rabbis heard that the student was able to cause rain where the teacher had failed, they explained that this happened because Rabbi Akiva “ma’avir al midotav.” Maavir al midotav is often translated as “he was forgiving.” But a more word by word translation could be “he causes his harsh judgments to pass by.” Perhaps Avinu Malkeinu thus comes from an author who placed curiosity, relationship, and connection before judgment and strictness. This origin provided for me a more tender place to rest this prayer’s origin and intent.
While there are dozens of verses in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer as it shows up in prayer books today, and the number is variable among different communities, the refrain contains the majority of the collective power, I believe. Though the refrain is not part of R’ Akiva’s prayer found in the Talmud, the haunting melody engraves its words into my soul as if timeless. Beyond how we might address the divine, the mystery, the Higher Power, the interconnectedness of all, it reads: Avinu malkeinu, chaneinu va’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Asey imanu, tzedakah v’chesed, v’hoshi’einu. Calling out to the beyond-self, there is a plea to be gracious and answer our call.
But it is the second line that stopped me this year.
Ki eyn banu ma’asim.
This line is often translated as “although we have no merit” or “despite not having done anything to deserve it.” This translation implies that we are asking for justice and kindness and liberation and strength, despite not being worthy of it. Despite not having done what was needed of us, or that we committed to, despite, maybe, at times, doing the opposite.
Literally, though, this line can be translated as: Ki - Because or when, eyn - there is not, banu - in us, ma’asim - actions. Because there is not, in us, actions.
This could be understood according to a perspective that the RAMbam, Maimonides, shared with us from Egypt in the late 12th century: "A person should always look at themselves as equally balanced between having done what they need to do and not having done what they need to do, as equally balanced between acting justly and transgressing justice. Thus their next action tips the scales." (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)
By thinking of “there is not in us action” as having a net zero when weighing our actions, perhaps Avinu Malkeiu reminds us that it is “as if” there is no action is us, for all previous actions have canceled one another out, and thus everything relies on what we do next. Such a reading might provide motivation to make a choice for today - for now - that lives into our values, aligns with our community agreements, fulfills your commitments to self, family, G-d, world, while bringing our focus to the present. For everything relies on it. Perhaps.
Or maybe “having in us no actions” is a stance of humility. A way of seeing ourselves as not holding our accomplishments over others or showing off. Humility is certainly a trait held high in Jewish tradition as Moses is called the most humble of anyone who lived on earth in the book of Numbers, and this is explained by the Sephardi scholar RamBAN in the early 13th century saying: When it says Moses was the most humble, it is that he “never sought superiority over any other person, nor did he ever pride himself at all about his high position, and certainly not in relation to his siblings…”
Thus, Avinu Malkeinu, in addition to helping us acknowledge the clean slate we could be acting from in every moment, could also be a means of harnessing a perspective of humility toward equity.
To this, I want to offer another thought, what our rabbis call a dvar acher. This line, Ki eyn banu ma’asim - for we have, in us, no actions, gave me a chance to see myself, in the context of the year that has now concluded, in the liturgy. I have experienced burnout this past year to a degree I have not known before. When I read the line “there are no actions in us,” I couldn’t help but say - “Yes! That!” I have experienced having no actions in me. Ki eyn banu ma’asim - could be read as “I’ve got nothing left.” “I just can’t.” Avinu malkeinu could be a chance to finally admit to the everythingness/nothingness - that I am simply unable.
Reading this this year allowed me to see the pressures that I feel to be someone who is able to do anything. The pressures I feel to never admit a shortcoming, and, by implication, never ask for help. Intellectually, I could begin to understand just how much I have been holding around this. Could Avinu Malkienu become a revelation? A pathway to the tears that caused rain to fall and the drought to end?
In this new context, the last line of the refrain offers a challenging push that I would like to move toward this year.
Aseh imanu, tzedakah va’chesed, v’hoshi’einu. Often understood as an ask to G-d for help, deliverance, and assistance, this translation may not fully resonate for us here. For we are a community that prefers na’aseh shalom - we together will make peace, not an oseh shalom, where some separate G-d will make peace for us.
Translated more closely, aseh - do, imanu - with us, tzedakah va’chesed - acts of equity, justice, and love, v’hoshi’einu - and cause us to be strong.
It is that second word that got me. With us. Not for us.
This ‘doing together’ is what Avinu Malkeinu offers us as a remedy for not having any action left in us, perhaps. Lest we believe we are all alone. Lest we believe waiting for things to get better is the answer, if only we acted deservingly.
And let’s be real, we know how much there is to do. Reemerging at this phase of a pandemic while holding on to disability justice. Raising a collective voice against antisemitism and its weaponization - especially in a presidential election year. Ending the continued entrenched Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and homes, especially as democracy is targeted there and elsewhere. Halting our reliance and investment in fossil fuels and that which continues to elevate the CO2 in our precious one atmosphere. And spending our time and sharing our resources to care for one another through mutual aid. Just to name a few.
The refrain makes a quick transition from “having nothing in us” to “doing justice and love together.” And may indeed it be that quick and that easy. But in reality, it may take time to get from one to the next. We may need to metaphorically drag out certain words and certain lines. And take pauses in between. We may get impatient. We may lose perspective that moving slowly is so much quicker than not moving at all. And that tending to our own ability to do anything at all is doing something. As we sing Avinu Malkeinu in the days to come, may it give us the power to choose what we do next in alignment with our commitments, may it give us humility in the context of the interdependent roles we each play, and may it provide strength to do what we can even if all we can do is reach out to another when, in us, there is no actions. Here’s to our patience, our understanding, the passing over our harsh judgements, and the celebration of the multitudes we each, and our community contains.
Shanah tovah u’metukah.