Yom Kippur Day 5777

Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada

Shana tov and welcome once again to Temple Sinai. The High Holy Days are filled with some of the most poignant and powerful prayers in Jewish liturgy but too often, we come to services and feel that we’re just thrown right in. Some of these High Holy Days prayers are familiar, some are not, and as we are saying them, we may think – what am I supposed to be feeling right now? Is this working? Or even, what exactly am I doing here? On this most holy of days, we are supposed to ask for forgiveness from God for very specific things and do serious internal work. At the same time, we’re told that this day is already the holiest of all holy days. So in some sense, we are asked to align our internal state with what is already happening externally. Today I want to talk about how we can use prayer – and in particular, the words of one specific prayer, Avinu Malkeinu – to align our minds and especially our hearts with the meaning of this day.

It’s worth noting upfront that Avinu Malkeinu, which means Our Father, our King, is a gendered name, used at a time when patriarchal language was not objectionable. But it’s not the only name we have; we might contrast Avinu Malkeinu with God as Shechina, which as Reb Zalman teaches, conjures up “the female presence of God, who abides among us when we are connected and pines in exile when we are cut off from our roots and from the ground of our being.” But it is significant that among the many names of God, which also includes El Shaddai, HaMakom, and Adonai, on the High Holy Days we say, Avinu Malkeinu, thereby appealing to the parent of all creation. This prayer says that God is both intimately connected to us and distant, imminent and transcendent, loving and caring but also the ultimate authority. With the image of the intimate avinu, father, we conjure up our inner resources which contribute to our teshuvah. And by immediately referencing Malkeinu, God from on high, we acknowledge that we need external help as well.

The oldest version of the complete Avinu Malkeinu we have includes 44 verses. Most machzorim shorten it, or distribute its verses throughout multiple recitations over the chagim. In the middle ages, Ashkenazi Jews added verses about saving our community from the violent Crusades that ransacked European Jewish communities. In reciting these truly ancient prayers today, using the same language as our ancestors in appealing to God’s compassion, we are accessing a language with centuries of spiritual and emotional resonance.

Part of what makes Avinu Malkeinu so powerful is its repetition. Each of the four services of Yom Kippur – Kol Nidrei, Shacharit, Mincha, and Neilah –  includes the Avinu Malkeinu after the Amidah, giving us four different opportunities to appeal to God’s imminence and transcendence. We say it after the very physical act of beating our hearts in Al Chet, trying to wake ourselves up from our spiritual and emotional daze. By the third or fourth time we pray the same words, we may have already imbued each line with a specific thought or connotation that brings it alive for us. But this still does not answer the question of how we should pray.

This is a central question that preoccupies the Rabbis in the Talmud. How should we pray to God, and how should we ask God for forgiveness? According to Rabbi Yohanan, the Holy One Blessed be He once wrapped Himself in a tallit and told Moses, “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this same order of prayer and I will forgive them.” He then gave Moses the prayer listing the 13 attributes of God’s mercy, which we sing on the High Holy Days: “Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet. Notzer chesed la’alufim, noseh avon vafesha, v’chata’ah, v’nakei!” One way to pray, the rabbis teach, is to remind God of God’s innate compassion for His fallible human creations.

Avinu Malkeinu is also a chutzpa-dik prayer, perhaps even more so than the 13 attributes of God. If you want to look at it with me, you can turn to page 252 of your Yom Kippur machzor. With this prayer we say, Since you God are our only King, we have nowhere else and no one else to appeal to. Grant us whatever we may be praying for, not for our sake, but for yours. Because You are compassionate, almighty, sovereign, and Holy… Remember? And don’t even do this for us! Do it for you! The fourth line on page 253 is, “Avinu Malkeinu, act for Your sake, if not for ours.”

But more importantly, the Avinu Malkeinu teaches us about the importance of heartfelt and spontaneous prayer. According to Masechet Ta’anit, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to fasts, the first Avinu Malkeinu prayer occurred as a Plan B to a failed Plan A. It happened during a severe drought in early rabbinic times in Israel, when a fast day was declared and the community had gathered to pray for rain. Rabbi Eliezer petitioned God for rain first by leading his congregation in the Amidah. The gemorrah reads: “He said twenty-four blessings … but was not answered. Rabbi Akiva led after him, and said: ‘Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, our King, We have sinned before You. Avinu Malkeinu, We have no King but You. Avinu Malkeinu [For your sake,] have mercy on us.’ And the rain fell.” (Talmud Taanit 25b)

Indeed, the first Avinu Malkeinu was a spontaneous, desperate and emotional appeal to God by Rabbi Akiva, who said those words only after his own teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, failed to bring rain with his tefillah. But if the request was exactly the same, why was Rabbi Eliezer’s prayer ineffective and Rabbi Akiva’s successful? The Talmud suggests that this was an issue of emotion over intellect. Rabbi Eliezer was known as a truthful rabbi but he was also exceedingly harsh in his delivery of the truth. Earlier in this story, the people become tired and prepare to go home because they have actually been fasting for 13 days – not 1 day like us, but 13. Seeing them leave, Rabbi Eliezer asks if they are leaving to dig their graves…in response, the people begin to cry, and a bit of rain falls. After this, R’ Eliezer leads his failed prayer and then R’ Akiva makes his emotional appeal to Avinu Malkeinu. Rabbi Akiva’s prayer works because Akiva, the prayer-leader is compassionate towards the people and empathizes with their fatigue and despair in a way that R’Eliezer is not. From this story we also learn that God wants people to be emotionally invested in prayer, and that traditional formulations don’t matter as much as the impassioned and heartfelt quality of our tefilah. After all, R’Eliezer recited the established 24 blessings, while R’Akiva came up with a sincere and spontaneous prayer from his heart.

The Talmudic story of how the Avinu Malkeinu came to be raises a fundamental tension in all of prayer: that of keva (set prayer) and kavannah (heartfelt intention). How do we take an existing prayer and make it urgent and real? How do we keep prayers fresh and as full of meaning today as when they first arose?

We Jews are not used to spontaneous prayer because we have so many prayers: one for every occasion, it seems. If the words on the page come from our intellectual tradition, then spontaneous prayer is linked more intimately to our hearts. On Yom Kippur, we attempt to bring our emotions forward, for our heart to overpower our intellect, just as we hope God will do in overpowering God’s din, judgment or justice, with God’s rachamim, compassion. In this way, the set prayers become a kind of canvas for our own prayer, which we hope will emerge following all the repetitions of words like Avinu Malkeinu. If we’re doing it “right” we may begin to feel a sense of urgency at the Neilah service this evening, as we sing pitchu li, acknowledging that the gates are closing and that we have just a few last moments to direct the prayers of our hearts to whatever it is that we associate with God. My Rabbi, the late Reb Zalman said that “Prayer is not a switch with which we can control the universe. But … with our prayers, [we can] reach dimensions of existence that we do not otherwise have access to…. Prayer may not bring world peace, but it gives my heart peace…. A prayer, truly prayed, is the beginning of its own answer.”

It helps to pray when you have a sense of what you are praying for, and whom you are praying to. The words Avinu Malkeinu correlate to certain qualities of God that I’ve already mentioned. But as you pray, you may find other ways of relating to God that are even more authentic for you. The name “Riboino shel olam” means master of the universe and our ancestors used it when they needed to call upon God to listen to something very personal. I particularly love the various Yiddish names for God, which retain the intimacy and awe that we associate with Avinu Malkeinu, but that also add humor and informality. There’s “Gottenyu, little God. It’s the homy God, the one you can always come to with your kvetching.” There’s also Der Aybishter, which literally means “the most high” but also means, “the guy upstairs, the one who shoves furniture around in the middle of the night. You’re never quite sure why, but you’re resigned to it.”

So what is the name of God that you need on this Yom Kippur? Do you need a “friend, a comforter, a rock that you can lean on, or a recipient of your joy and thanks?” (Reb Zalman, Jewish With Feeling, 17-19.)  I encourage you to give that face of God a name – either a name from our tradition or something you make up. Can you take that name into the rest of your day and year, and rely upon it when you feel the need to reach out? Spend some time this afternoon reflecting on that name before your return for mincha.

As we go into the first Avinu Malkeinu of Yom Kippur day, I pray that we can infuse the ancient words on the page with the real prayer of our hearts. I pray that Rabbi Akiva’s once spontaneous words can inspire us to find our own connection to God. And I pray that as this Day of Atonement continues, our prayers transcend the limits of language and help us to feel in sync with the deepest parts of ourselves. Shana Tova, Gemar Chatima Tovah.

Please rise for Avinu Malkeinu on page 252.