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Ending Our Spiritual Drought

September 1, 2021


Rabbi Nathan Martin

"Our Creator, Our Sovereign"

In studying the High Holiday liturgy with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer last year, I explored the origin of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, one of the highlights of the High Holiday liturgy. The final verse of the prayer reads, “Our Creator, our sovereign, be gracious with us and respond to us, for we have no deeds to justify us; deal with us in righteousness and love, and save us now (Kol Haneshama Mahzor translation)”

I have always been moved by both the words and the melody of Avinu Malkeinu. It feels like a moment when can lose ourselves in the music, open up to our vulnerability, and plead for a second chance on our lives.

What I learned from R. Kaunfer, interestingly, is that the Avinu Malkein prayer does not have roots in the High Holiday liturgy but rather is connected to a situation where the Jews were praying to end a drought. The Talmud relates the following story:

Rabbi Eliezer led the amidah and said twenty-four blessings (including six additional blessings added to bring rain during a drought), but was not answered. Rabbi Akiva led after him, and said: “Our Father, our king [We have sinned before You. Our Father, our king] We have no king but You. Our Father, our king [For your sake,]1 have mercy on us.”  And the rain fell.

In the first attempt to end the drought Rabbi Eliezer, a prominent 1st - 2nd Century sage seems to follow all the prescribed ritual for ending a drought, adding the required number of blessings in our most import daily prayer ‐ the amida ‐ but with no result. And yet, when his student, the great Rabbi Akiva prays, one gets the feeling that his prayer comes straight from the heart. And thus it is Rabbi Akiva’s prayer that opens up the heavens.

But even Rabbi Eliezer knows that heartfelt prayer opens the gates. Elsewhere in the Talmud he teaches that “Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked…Yet though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not, for it is written, Hear my prayer, O YHVH, and give ear unto my cry, hold not your peace at my tears (Psalms 39:13) (Tal BM 59a).”

The through‐line of Avinu Malkeinu from its origins as a prayer to end droughts to its place in our liturgy today igniting God’s forgiveness is that the prayer is effective when it is prayed from the heart. It only works when our tears open up God’s tears in the heavens in the form of rain or breaks open God’s heart with compassion.

The Avinu Malkeinu prayer continues to speak to me at this holiday season, a time when we are all painfully aware of our vulnerability. We are witnessing a resurgence of Covid cases, a fragile economic recovery, the destructive impact of racism in our country, and floods and wildfires caused through our warming of our atmosphere. It is quite challenging to simply not feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of challenges we face. It is a moment that we may not have the deeds to justify our forgiveness — for all these ills are of our making — and yet still we are calling out for “righteousness, love” and salvation.

Even if we cannot resolve all these challenges the act of coming together, acknowledging our vulnerability, and praying for transformation is important. The work of the High Holiday season is to help us realign ourselves, to root out guilt and shame for missing the mark so that we can better direct ourselves and our energies toward healing and repair. The Avinu Malkeinu and the other intensive High Holiday liturgy help us to do just that.

Like you, I don’t know what the coming year brings. But I do know that by coming together in honest reckoning with ourselves and each other, and by unlocking our hearts, perhaps we can better open the channels of forgiveness in ourselves and in the heavens.

May we only have blessing, health, and sweetness for the coming year.

Shanah Tovah

Fri, July 19 2024 13 Tammuz 5784