Tefillat Rosh Hashana: Avinu Malkeinu as Paradigm

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by R. Basil Herring

Needless to say, the Rosh Hashana Machzor reflects many of the well-known themes of the Yamim Noraim. To name but a few: judgement, forgiveness, and  punishment; repentance, remorse, and resolution for the future, petition and request for the entire spectrum of needs and desires; Rosh Hashana as the anniversary of creation; descriptions of the heavenly angels in their praises of God; the sacrifices of the day in the Beit Hamikdash; readings of relevant episodes from the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs; the complex relationship of the Jewish people to the nations of the world; the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem, and our longing for messianic redemption. But there are two other themes that, more than any other, form the very warp and woof of the fabric of the Rosh Hashana Machzor, reflected and repeated in a variety of ways over and over again. We can refer to them, in their most familiar, but deceptively simple formulation of R. Akiva (see Ta’anit 25b), as the complementary descriptions of God as Avinu Malkeinu

Now as easy as it is to refer to God as “our King,” in truth for most of us in contemporary democratic countries in the West, the ramifications of the phrase Malkeinu are extremely difficult to fully comprehend and internalize. For we cannot grasp what earlier generations in other countries knew instinctively: namely the absolute power and royal prerogative wielded by the king. His power was not limited like that of a constitutional monarch. To the contrary, and in most countries, a king wielded powers, literally, of life and death, riches or poverty, renown or disgrace, war or peace. Think Henry VIII and his wives, Louis and his lettres de cachet in Versailles, or the unlimited dictates and wealth of the Russian Czars ensconced in their palatial splendor preserved these days in the Hermitage and Summer Palaces in St. Petersburg, Russia. Closer to home for us Jews, Tanach and halakhic give ample witness to the almost absolute power of the Melech. Starting with Joshua our first King to whom the people swore loyalty on pain of death (see Joshua 1), and continuing with Kings Saul, David and  Solomon, the halakha granted the absolute authority known as Din Melech, in multiple scenarios:  he could, and did, issue commands at will on pain of death (see Kings 1 regarding Solomon and Shimi b. Gera); if perchance the Sanhedrin could not issue a sentence involving the death penalty on a technicality the King could order that punishment in his own right (see Rambam. Hil. Melakhim, and more recently the Meshech Chochmah in Parshat Shoftim), so as to uphold public law and order; or, to quote one more example, if the nation went to war and won, fully half of the plunder became his personal property.  How foreign this all sounds to us who live in democratically elected and governed societies, where there are balance of powers, judicial review, independent legislative authorities, and federal/state/ and local laws and statutes. 

And yet, difficult as it is for us comprehend, on the days of Rosh Hashana, not only are we to accept and embrace God as the absolute King of such absolute kings, His Kingship is actually dependent on us crowning Him as such. This is how Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik described this idea in a Teshuva Drosha in 1974:

I remember it as if it happened only today. I was perhaps 7 years old at the time, living in Khaslavitchy, Lithuania. It was a few days before Rosh Hashana and our melamed was teaching us about the machzor, and the piyyut Vaye’etayu that declares “in glorious reverence they will crown You King, … taking on themselves the yoke of Your Kingship…“ My melamed, like all the elders of Chabad, referred to the first night of Rosh Hashana as the “der koronatzer nacht”, or “Coronation Night.” This is because it is the first occasion that the Jew gives a royal crown to the Almighty. The first time in the new year that the Jew declares “our God and the God of our fathers, reign over the whole universe in Your glory, O Lord, King over all the earth.” Who grants the royal crown to the all-powerful Master of the Universe? My melamed, along with many other poor Jews, granted the crown to the Almighty…

But still we must ask the obvious question: how exactly does a Jew crown God as the King of Kings, surely not simply by declaring Him King? And why davka does this have to happen on Rosh Hashana? To answer this question we need to read and understand the Gemara Rosh Hashana 16a:

Said the Holy One Blessed be He: declare the Rosh Hashana mussaf prayers of Malchuyot before Me so that you may crown me as your King; declare before Me the Zichronot prayers so that I will be mindful to remember you for good; How? By means of the Shofar.

Here is how Rabbeinu Bechaye in the 14th century understood this Gemara: 

The sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana alludes to God’s Kingship, for God created the cosmos on Rosh Hashana, and in so doing He became the King of the Universe, because without a kingdom and a people one cannot be a king, and it is the custom among earthly kings to sound trumpets on the day of their coronation. (Kad Hakemach, Rosh Hashana)

In other words, without the created world God cannot be the King, and so at the six days of Creation He created His kingdom, to become its King in due course when the people of Israel would emerge into history and accept His sovereign rule, to be renewed and re-coronated every year on Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the establishment of His kingdom, with the sounding of the royal trumpets. And, this gemara teaches us, because we are the ones who crown Him with our Shofarot, He in turn remembers us for good. So it is that throughout the tefilla of the day, not just with the sounding of the shofar, we affirm again and again that He is our Holy King (haMelech hakadosh, ), that we accept His sovereignty (Melech azur, aderet mamlecha, lecha hakol yachtiru le’kel orech din, hashem Melech/malach/yimloch le’olam va’ed); that as He sits on His heavenly throne His is the absolute power of life and death (melech chafetz bechayim, unetaneh tokef – uvo tinasei malchutecha, et al.

But to fully grasp how it is that we crown God as our King, we need to explore one more fundamental principle of Yahadut. Namely, the meaning and the mechanism of kabbalat ol malchut shamayim (the acceptance of the yoke, or burden, of God’s Kingdom. Here I would like to quote several paragraphs from Rav Soloveitchik’s introduction to the recently published RCA Siddur, explaining what we should have in mind when we say the Shema. He writes,

A Jew must believe, and also strive to understand and feel with all his soul, that all natural phenomena, both non-organic and organic, are realizations of the First Will, the will of the Creator. His infinite, all-powerful, and eternal First Will is manifested in the mathematical regularity and necessity that rules everywhere, and which we call the law of nature. When light flows, the wind blows, the sea storms, the rivers run, the birds fly, the insects buzz, the trees bloom and fade, blood circulates, the nervous system functions, the planets rotate, stars explode in the most distant corners of the universe, and so on and so forth – in all these wondrous natural processes the word of God resonates, the word which once split the unformed void, and brought into being a well ordered, strictly arranged world: the word “Yehi – Let there be.” This “One” rules in everything, over everything, and through everything. He poured His will into inanimate, vegetative, and animate beings, all of which carry out His command “Yehi” blindly and mechanically. 

But the same Divine Will is also active in Man’s spiritual personality, in his conscience and moral consciousness, in his longing for splendor and beauty, in his dreams of sanctity and of a loftier and better world. The First Will, which expresses itself in such everyday mechanical phenomena as the ebb and flow of the ocean waters, also reveals itself to Man in his moments of ethical elevation, and torments him in his hours of ethical descent. The “Yehi” of creation and the “Anokhi” (“I am the Lord your God”) of Sinai are revelations of the same infinite Will.

Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, for the Rav, means recognizing that whereas God’s will is the controlling force and power in everything that happens in the natural world, in the world of morality and spirituality, it is not God Who is in control, but man. It is we who are empowered either accept or reject His royal commands and desires, we who are empowered to choose to conform to His will, i.e., to make, or not to make, His will our will, by accepting or not accepting His commandments and exhortations as as determining how we will live our lives. And if and when we choose to make His will our will, i.e., when we accept the ol malchut shamayim, the yoke of adhering to His sovereign will, we coronate Him as the King. And while we strive to make this commitment twice every day of the year in the Shema, it is particularly on Rosh Hashana, and particularly in the first of the three middle sections of the Mussaf Amidah, the Malchuyot (the verses of Kingship), that this commitment is most significant and necessary, for it is on this day and in these paragraphs, that we reaffirm His kingship and become His subjects, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, as symbolized and enacted in practice, by sounding the Shofar.

But on Rosh Hashana we do not only declare that God is our King. We also declare, in parallel, that He is our Father, Avinu, –  as in Avinu Malkeinu. True it is that the Jewish people look to God as our King, but it is equally true that we relate to Him as a Father, and He to us as His sons and daughters. We know this because the Torah and Tanach, especially those prophetic texts that we read on Rosh Hashana in the second central section of these days known as Zichronot (or Remembrances), describe our relationship to God, and His relationship to us, in exactly that way. To quote but a few, and in the words of the prophet Jeremiah 2 and 31, Zacharti lach chesed ne’urayich…  haben yakir li Efraim, im yeled sha’ashu’im…zachor ezkerenu od… hamu me’ai lo rachem arachamenu…, or, when we blow the Shofar, im kevanim rahameinu  kerahem av al banim. And of course, there is the Avinu Malkeinu itself, that repeatedly, almost insistently appeals to God to act toward us as His beloved children.

Why is this Fatherhood so central to the prayers of Rosh Hashana? Because appealing to God on the basis of His fatherly love, is in the end our only hope for redemption, salvation, and life. Were He to judge us as our King, none of us would merit acquittal. One does not have to be a misanthrope or cynic to appreciate the fact that we would be guilty on all charges, and then some. It is only because it is in the nature of a loving, embracing, forgiving, supporting, and nourishing father, we can hope that God will overlook our current failings, weakness, rebelliousness, and self-indulgences, so as to grant us all the things that we so desperately need, but so obviously have not earned and do not deserve, and grant us forbearance such that He would withhold the punishments and deprivations that should be ours, until such time as we will have mended our ways to walk in His ways. And so we ask God to treat us not as our King but as our Father, to favor us with His dispensations of love and mercy, kindness and compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Yet we still have a problem: today of all days, he is undeniably our King whom we crown on this very day. How do we bridge the massive chasm that separates the King from the Father? The answer, in a word, is the Shofar. It is the Shofar that both crowns God as King, and invokes the Zichronot memories and the promises of events past and future in which God promised to treat us mercifully as His beloved children. And so we encounter the third section of the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf, the Shofarot, that begins with the paragraph “Ata Nigleita” that crucially highlights the Shofar of Sinai when the people accepted God and His absolute will, saying naaseh ve’nishma against the backdrop of “vekol hashofar holech ve’chazek me’od”.  And thereafter in the Shofarot we invoke the promise of the great Shofar that we are promised will be sounded at the end of days, as we say “teka beshofar gadol lecheiruteinu, vesa nes lekabetz galuyoteinu, etc”.  That is, we “remind” God our King that He is also our Father Who has promised us that in spite of everything He has prkomised us that He will in days to come, sooner or later, remember the days of our youth, overlook our shortcomings and mercifully redeem us in body and spirit, as the bracha concludes “shome’a kol teruat amo Yisrael berachamim.” 

And beyond the Shofarot section, it is of course the memory of the ram sacrificed by Avraham Avinu on that epochal day on Har Hamoriah, which is the centerpiece of the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when we proclaim for all to hear how God (through His angel) promised multiple blessings for Avraham’s future descendants. Here, once again, it is the Shofar that bridges and connects God as awesome commanding King – and God as loving, forgiving, Father.

Malchiyot, Zichronot, Shofarot. Truly a holy, redemptive, trilogy on which we pin our hopes and prayers on this awesome, fearful, but also hopeful, day, standing as we do before our Father and our King.

Allow me to conclude with a slightly revised version of the classic tale of the Prodigal Prince, attributed to the Baal Shemtov, regarding this very theme.

There once was a powerful king whom ruled over his far-flung kingdom with wisdom and kindness. After many years, his wife the queen gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. The king doted over the prince, and granted him his every wish. Sadly, as the prince grew older he developed in ways that were not always pleasing to the king and queen. He struck up friendships with poor role models, developed a sense of entitlement and carelessness, experimented with all kinds of lifestyles and habits of mind and body. No matter how hard the king tried, he found that he simply could not overcome the self-destructive habits of his beloved son. As a last resort, the king decided to send the prince to a distant isolated village, deprived of his royal garments and luxuries, in the forlorn hope that the boy would learn to appreciate what his parents had done form him. And so it was. With the passage of many months, the prince learned what is what like to live among commoners as one of them. And the more he protested that he was born to royalty the more the locals mocked and mistreated him as an imposter with delusions of grandeur. He got into arguments and fights, he was wounded, his clothes became torn, his hair unkempt, his face dirty and bruised. Alone and exposed, he feared for his very life, while he rued the days that he had disobeyed his doting father and mother.  And then one day he heard a rumor: the king was going to visit the village, to see his distant subjects, and show them his power. The prince got excited at the thought that finally he would be reunited with the King. When the day of the royal visit arrived, all the villagers put on their finery but the prince had only his torn and tattered clothing. They washed and shaved, but he remained dirty and unkempt. As the king’s carriage rode through the village, the villagers crowded around, and the prince tried to get the king’s attention. But the king ignored this villager in his tattered unkempt state. “Father, father, it’s me your beloved son, take me home with you to the palace” he cried out, to no avail. And then, at the last moment, in the forlorn hope that there was one thing that would identify him to his royal father, the prince cried out the lullaby that years earlier the king would sing to him as he lovingly put him to bed each night. And when the king heard that song, he remembered how much he had loved and doted on his son, and so he pushed the crowds aside, and embraced his prodigal prince, taking him back to the palace, life’s lessons having been learned, the hard way.

In a profound sense, said the Baal Shemtov, we are the prodigal princes who have not lived up to the expectations of our Father the King. And so we were exiled to far away lands, to suffer the indignities of life among the nations, far from home. We too are soiled and unrecognizable to our Father the King. And that is why we too sound the Shofar of yore, the Shofar of our earliest youth when we listened and obeyed at Mount Moriah and at Sinai, and in Jerusalem of old, when we enjoyed the embrace of our all-powerful King, our beloved forgiving Father, in the hope that He too, hearing the kol tekiateinu, the sounds of our tekiyot, will overlook our current shortcomings and our past errors, to look past the external signs of our sorry spiritual life, to gather us up, embrace us once more, and bring us home where we truly belong. 


About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is the editor of the recently published Avodat Halev Siddur of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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