Q. Can you explain the Avinu Malkenu prayer that we recite on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur?
It strikes an immediate chord: “Our Father, our King: we have sinned before You! Our Father, our King: inscribe us in the book of good life! Our Father, our King: open the gates of heaven to our prayer!”
Though it holds a special place on the High Holydays, it began with Rabbi Akiva in time of drought.
At first Rabbi Eliezer stepped forward and recited 24 blessings; but his prayer was not answered. Rabbi Akiva then prayed: “Our Father, our King: we have no king but You! Our Father. our King: have mercy on us for Your sake!” Akiva was effective, and rain fell (Ta’anit 24b).
The titles Father and King are found frequently. In combination they present a paradox. A father is warm, close by, forbearing; a king is high and mighty, impartial and aloof.
Can God be both at the same time? But how can He not be both? For if He were only Father we might exploit His kindly nature, and if He were only King we might be too fearful to approach Him.
Avinu Malkenu was built up over the ages. It may once have been alphabetical. The number of verses differs (we have 44). In the Ashkenazi version some lines date from the First Crusade, others from the time of the Black Death.
Whenever Jews had a special yearning in their hearts, they expressed it in Avinu Malkenu. Their thought was, “God, what others have done to us is unjust; we implore You, speak as King of the world and decide in our favour. God, what we ourselves have done is not worthy of Your children; we plead with You to be a forgiving Father.”
Five times the prayer asks that we be inscribed in a book. The Book of Good Life may correspond to B’reshit, where the creation of the world is called “good”. The Book of Redemption and Salvation is Sh’mot, which records redemption from bondage. The Book of Sustenance Is Vayikra, which lists offerings and festivals.
The Book of Merit is B’midbar, which enumerates the tribes; all gain merit from the patriarchs. The Book of Forgiveness and Pardon is D’varim, where Moses says that repentance brings pardon.
The list of requests we submit is rather daunting. Do we deserve answers to our prayers?
The poignant last line recognises our unworthiness when It tearfully admits, “We have no good deeds”. But we ask Him to deal with us in charity and lovingkindness and to understand how hard we have tried.
Avinu Malkenu is not said on Shabbat because, like the weekday Amidah, its theme is the worries and concerns that are inappropriate on a day of serenity and peace.