Monday, September 22, 2014

Avinu Malkeinu: Balancing G-d's Love and Justice on Rosh Hashanah

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, I think of the awe-inspiring liturgy that we read and sing on the yom tov. My favorite liturgical piece in all of Judaism, which so happens to be read on Rosh Hashanah, is called Avinu Malkeinu (אבינו מלכנו; Our Father). Avinu Malkeinu consists of a long list of supplications that range from good health to prosperity in the upcoming year. At the end of this liturgical piece, we read the following verse, one that has been sung by many Jewish artists:

אבינו מלכנו חננו ועננו, כי אין בנו מעשים.  עשה עמנו צדקה וחסד והושיענו.  

Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer, though we have no worthy deeds. Act with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.

Rabbi Akiva used the Avinu Malkeinu prayer to successfully end a drought (Talmud, Ta'anit 25b), so what is it about this particular verse that is so alluring? In this concise passage do we see a complicated relationship with G-d. On the one hand, we ask G-d to act with charity and loving-kindness, which denotes the love of G-d. Much like a parent (אבינו), G-d shows His children unconditional love. On the other hand, we come before G-d, our King (מלכנו), saying we have no worthy deeds, thereby showing our awe for G-d's transcendent Oneness. Seriously, who are we to plea with G-d? We see this balance in G-d's treatment of humans in general. If G-d had created a world of strict justice, none of us would be here. If G-d created a world with strict love, our ethics, morals, and behavior would mean nothing because G-d would reward all behavior equally, which would be unfair. How does G-d strike a balance? With mercy. Throughout the High Holy Day liturgy, we see this motif surface, and it's evident here.

How do we see this balance struck? We recognize that we have no worthy deeds (כי אין בנו מעשים). No matter how many mitzvahs and good deeds we perform, they will never be enough in comparison to what we could have done. On the other hand, we as mere mortals ask G-d to treat us kindly and recognize our human nature as a mitigating factor, another theme throughout the High Holy liturgy.

Whether we view G-d as an overbearing parent or a more distant one, we want a relationship with G-d similar to one in which we can please our parents. We all stand in rawness of our frailty, mortality, and human limitations while asking ourselves how we can do better for the upcoming year. In essence, Avinu Malkeinu is the way that we connect with transcendent Oneness on an even higher level than normal and remind Him of His mercy on one of the most holy days of the Jewish calendar.

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