When we stand before the open ark and recite Avinu Malkeinu on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we may experience high drama. This is one of the most ancient prayers of the high holy day liturgy. A talmudic legend attributes the refrain—Our Source, Our Sovereign. . . have mercy on us—to Rabbi Akiba, who offered it as a plea for rain in time of drought (Taanit 25b). Over the years, many verses have accumulated; the exact number and wording differs according to the rite and locale (German Ashkenazi, Polish, Italian, Sephardi, etc.)
Why has Avinu Malkeinu become such an important part of the Days of Awe, and what does it suggest about our relationship with the Divine? While the first word, Avinu, is often translated as “our Father,” the root, av can also mean source or foundation (as in avot melachah, the sources of what defines “work” on Shabbat). This meaning is implicit in the very nature of the term av, which is literally the first word in the Hebrew language (the first letter, aleph, followed by the second, bet). So when we refer to God as Avinu, we recognize the Holy One as our founder, our source, the stuff from which all of life is, as it were, made. By contrast, when we call God Malkeinu, our Sovereign, we point to a transcendent, awe-inspiring Other, beyond ourselves. When we recite Avinu Malkeinu, then, we paradoxically praise the Divine who is both within and beyond us, an intimate loving source of parental comfort and nurture, and a commanding external call to ethics and observance.
Each of us experiences the sacred differently. For some, holiness comes primarily through intimacy, through the still, small voice that whispers within us, and the ties that bind us to the people, creatures, and places that we love. Others find holiness in moments of fear and trembling, when we feel our cosmic insignificance against the backdrop of the vastness of God’s universe. Avinu Malkeinu affirms both of approaches to the divine. God is both wholly Other—and entirely present within us. During these Days of Awe, may we each find the Divine Presence when and where we need Her.
As we begin the new month of Elul, and with it our preparations for the fall holy days, think about where and when you most experience God/holiness. Then consider: how might that experience of the sacred inspire you to make teshuvah, to become a better person in the coming year?
To hear a contemporary jam-band rendition of Avinu Malkeinu by Phish, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP0UF_r3dkY&feature=related
and skip to around the 4:00 minute mark.