By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
Many years ago, during the Yom Kippur morning service, a certain rabbi was interrupted (albeit politely) by the oldest member of the synagogue. He asked if he could ascend the bimah and ask the rabbi a question. How could the rabbi say no? Here was the question: “On the High Holy Days how many Avinu Malkeinus are there?” Avinu Malkeinu is the liturgical interlude that appears throughout the service on the Days of Awe. This was, in fact, a trick question. The rabbi thought about the numerous repetitions of this recitation and blurted out something like, “100.” The gentleman, showing an amused grin, barked out, “No, Rabbi. In Judaism there is always just one Avinu Malkeinu.” Of course, theologically he was correct: we believe in one God.
A version of this declaration appears almost two thousand years ago, in the Talmud. From the beginning, Avinu Malkeinu was understood to be an appeal for God’s mercy.
Rabbi Eliezer once stood before the Ark [during a drought] 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 fell… (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 25b)
Avinu (our father) represents God’s compassion. Malkeinu (our king) signifies God’s stern, judgmental face. Avinu Malkeinu asks that God’s judgment be tempered by God’s mercy.
The theme of moving God from judgment to compassion is widespread throughout the Days of Awe, and is also a request applied to ourselves. Just as we wish to know God’s mercy, so should we show mercy to each other and to ourselves.
Throughout the Days of Awe, Avinu Malkeinu is recited before the open Ark, as was done by the ancient rabbis. The beginning of each line is the same: “Avinu Malkeinu, we have sinned before You.” What follows is a specific listing of wrongdoings. The list varies in each service. The composer Max Janowski set one such list to music, and Barbra Streisand even recorded it.
In the work of creating a new Reform machzor, there has been an effort to find a different word to characterize our moral challenges, as we stand before God. The word “sin” carries a great deal of cultural baggage in our country. Often it is considered in a Christian context, as in “a state of sin.” Judaism does not understand sin in this way. For Jews, sin is a matter of missing the moral mark. It is not a state of being; it is a matter of doing something wrong.
In order to find a new but faithful way of translating the notion of sin into a modern idiom, the editors have been piloting this version:
“Avinu Malkeinu, we come before You in our brokenness.”
Why such an approach? “Brokenness” captures our need for healing and repentance without using metaphors all too often associated with images of hell and damnation. It’s not that there are not consequences for our acts; and “brokenness” means more than a need of healing. We must take responsibility for our choices. “Brokenness” does not get us off the hook. But it does offer a way of dealing with our shortcomings without putting us on the defensive or allowing us to slide into a non-Jewish view of sin.
In its original context in the Talmud, Avinu Malkeinu was recited in response to a drought. The idea was that a drought must have been caused by God due to our moral failings. Throwing ourselves on God’s mercy was our best hope for salvation from starvation.
Theologically, such thinking is very problematic for us. Most of us–including myself–do not believe that God punishes us with droughts. We also know that good people often suffer and bad people go unpunished. Nevertheless, we also believe that righteous people know they are responsible for their actions, even if—being human—they will never meet the highest of Divine expectations. So we do our best and hope that God understands.
When I recite or listen to Avinu Malkeinu, this is my prayer: God, help me become a better me. Even when I miss the mark. Even in my brokenness.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg has served as the senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Coral Gables since 1996. In July he will begin serving as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. He is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor and is the author of five books. His newest book is, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most.