Avinu Malkeinu – one of the central prayers associated with the High Holy Days. I remember a congregant in my last community commenting on how uncomfortable she felt reciting the long list of ‘asks’ that this prayer contains:
Avinu Malkeinu – listen to our voice!
Avinu Malkeinu – let our hands overflow with Your blessings.
Avinu Malkeinu – do not turn us away from You with nothing.
Avinu Malkeinu – listen to our voice; treat us with tender compassion.
On and on it goes – these are just a sampling of the lines. My congregant asked, ‘Isn’t this the ultimate act of chutzpah? What right do we have to make these demands of God?’
She had a good point. And it reminded me of a story that I once heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l tell. He describes a time when you would go to the General Store and you’d ask the shopkeeper behind the counter, ‘Can I have a ball of string?’ and the shopkeeper would go to the shelves behind the counter and bring down a ball of string. ‘Can I have a yard of cloth?’ ‘Can I have a dozen cans of this’ and ‘half a dozen boxes of that’. So it would continue, and the shopkeeper would pull down all the items on your order list and pile them on the counter. At the end he would calculate the total bill. And, embarrassed but hopeful, the man would respond, ‘I don’t have any money to pay you, but may I take these items that I need nevertheless?!’
You can imagine how that would go in real life. But at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, we acknowledge as much in the closing line:
Avinu Malkeinu, chonainu vaaneinu, ki ein banu maasim – aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed, v’hoshieinu.
Avinu Malkeinu, Almighty and Merciful – answer us with grace, for our deeds our wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love.
(translation from the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh)
We ask for the response to our pleas to come as an act of grace. That’s not language that we are used to associating with Judaism, but it is, in fact, very present in our liturgy and many of our teachings. Ki ein banu maasim – because there isn’t anything in our deeds. We showed up to the store without any money to pay for our requests.
Here is how I translate these words into more contemporary concepts that speak to our inner lives. When I really engage in the work of the High Holy Days and look deeply at myself, there is plenty to cause me disappointment. We are often pretty harsh judges of ourselves. And here we are, in an act of chutzpah, hoping that life will be good anyway. That we will be forgiven for our failings. Can we give to others what we ask for ourselves? Can we respond to others from a place of grace? We go to the store without credit, but one of the ways we can acquire credit is by paying it forward.
Living more of life with that awareness we understand that only through acts of tzedakah and chesed can we change the meaning of our lives. Its not about what we have or haven’t got. A lot of life ‘just happens’; we like to think we are in control, but that’s seldom the reality. So we’re never going to be able to ‘pay’ for our fate through our deeds. Because it doesn’t really work that way. Acting morally doesn’t buy us more life, but it does enable us to practice and to receive forgiveness because it gives us the tools we need to be authentically remorseful and try to make amends when we mess up. And that is the answer, from a place of grace, that we seek. Remind us, as we pray, that we can change the quality of our existence, and the existence of others, through our acts. This is how salvation comes to this life and this world.
Avinu Malkeinu – our deeds are wanting; help us to do a little bit more in the year to come.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.