Avinu malkeinu, we have missed the mark before you.
Avinu malkeinu, we have no king other than you.
avinu (אָבִינוּ) = our father.
malkeinu (מַלְכֵּנוּ) = our king.
These are the first two verses of a prayer sung from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to ask God to forgive our misdeeds of the past year. (The new year, 5781, began on Friday evening, and Yom Kippur will end the evening of September 28, 2020 in the secular calendar.)
The Avinu Malkeinu prayer can be traced to the Talmud, which records a story about Rabbi Akiva’s prayer during a drought.1 Akiva’s teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, prayed for rain.
And he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered. Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said: “Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us.” And rain immediately fell. The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: “It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.” (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 25b, The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org)
Over the centuries more verses were added to Rabbi Akiva’s original two verses, all beginning with the words Avinu malkeinu.2
The first book of Isaiah, dated to the 8th century B.C.E., warns King Ahaz of Judah about dangers from other nations and urges him not to become a vassal of Assyria. The prophet calls God, not King Ahaz, malkeinu:
For God is our judge
Who issues decrees;
God is malkeinu;
[God] rescues us. (Isaiah 33:22)
A king here is not only a judge and a legislator, but also the one who rescues his subjects from foreign threats.
The second book of Isaiah, dated to 540 B.C.E. or later, predicts that God will return the exiles in Babylonia to their homeland of Judah. The prophet reminds God that the Israelites are like children waiting for their parent to rescue them:
For you are avinu.
Even if Abraham did not know us
And Israel did not recognize us
You, God, are avinu.
Our redeemer from long ago is your name. (Isaiah 63:16)
A father knows his children, and if they become slaves he redeems them.
If God is like our father and our king, then each of us is like a child or a servant to God. In fact, the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah includes a special three-part section with the following words after each set of shofar blasts:
Today the world is born. [God] makes all creations of all worlds stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants. If as children, have compassion toward us like the compassion of a father for children! And if as servants, our eyes hang on you until you pardon us and you release our verdict like a light, fear-inspiring Holy One!
What does it mean to be like a child to God?
Although children may be born with some instincts about fairness and kindness, they have a lot to learn. When they miss the mark, or even commit serious violations, children should be guided to realize that what they did was wrong and taught to repent, apologize, and make amends. A good human parent or mentor can do this with unflagging love for the child.
A child without help from an adult either misses out, or learns slowly through trial and error and close observation. The bible offers some rules about morality and about how to right the wrongs we do, but these hints are easy to overlook in the flood of narrative and ancient case law.
And although God may continue to love us when, like children, we miss the mark out of ignorance or naivety in a new situation, God does not provide the kind of instruction and guidance that humans can. Only after we have developed a mature sense of right and wrong, and a process for righting the wrongs we do, is it possible to hear the voice of God inside our own consciences. We need good humans in our lives before we can grow up and become good humans ourselves.
What does it mean to be like a servant to God?
In an absolute monarchy, the ruler’s subjects are like servants. Some are obedient minions of the monarchs themselves. Others are public servants who help, advise, and make requests of the monarch as they work for the good of the kingdom.
Do we serve God by obeying as many of God’s original orders to the Israelites as we can, even if God issued them several millennia ago? Do we take the biblical command to exterminate Canaanites as an order to exterminate Palestinians? Do we stone women who are not virgins on their wedding day? Do we obey other ancient rules that seem unethical by modern standards?
Or do we serve God by working for the good of God’s kingdom? In the book of Genesis God creates the world and then lets human beings rule over it.3 Now human beings are becoming absolute rulers of the world, and we are doing it badly; pollution has led to global climate catastrophe, and intolerance has prevented us from working together for mutual aid. We need to improve as human beings so we can rescue God’s world.
Here is the final verse of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu:
Avinu malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us.
Even if we have no [good] deeds
Treat us with charity and kindness, and rescue us.
We pray for God, our father, our king, to forgive us for our failings the previous year and rescue us from the consequences. But as adults, we have to rescue ourselves—by doing the appropriate good deeds.
Now that I am no longer a child, I pray to the still small voice of God within for inspiration on how to recognize my misdeeds, how to make amends graciously, and how to change my approach to life so I can gradually learn to do better.
And when I think of God as a parent or a monarch, I imagine God silently praying for us wayward servants to pull ourselves together, turn around, and collectively rescue the world by doing what only human beings can do: teaching our children, restoring our planet, and treating everyone with charity and kindness.
- Akiva ben Yoseif, called “Rabbi Akiva” in the Talmud, lived in Judea 30-135 C.E.
- The total number of verses used for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) ranges from 27 in the Yemenite tradition to 53 in the tradition of the Jews of Salonika.
- Genesis 1:26.