Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Avinu Malkeinu
The prayer Avinu Malkeinu combines two names for God found in the book of Isaiah: “Our Father” (Isaiah 63:16) and “Our King” (Isaiah 33:22). Each line of this supplicatory prayer begins with this formulation, calling out to God as both a parent and a monarch as we beg for forgiveness and survival in the coming year. We recite Avinu Malkeinu many times throughout the High Holy Day season, beginning during Selihot services and continuing as part of Shaharit and Mincha services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when we also add it during Maariv and Neilah). Its haunting melody and intense emotional language have made this prayer a signature moment of the Days of Awe.
The image of a father and the image of a king are very different from one another. What connotations come to mind for each role? Which image better represents your idea of the Divine? Is there a different image that fits better with your understanding of God?
Think of two additional terms that describe God’s role in your life. Write a prayer using these terms with the formula, “Our _______, Our _________” (ex, “Our Guide, Our Comfort” or “Our Energy, Our Hope”). Does this new formulation change how you relate to divinity? How does it change what you ask for in your prayer?
The Talmud (Taanit 25b) records that Rabbi Akiva recited these words while praying to end a drought. Why would he point out God’s role as both a “father” and a “king” while begging for the drought to end? Have you ever been in a situation of great communal need? Did you pray in those moments? What were the words or feelings in your prayers?
The refrain of Avinu Malkeinu reads, “Our Father, Our King, have mercy on us, answer us, for our deeds are insufficient; deal with us charitably and lovingly, redeem us.” Why do we point out that “our deeds are insufficient”? Do you feel that your deeds as a Jew and as a righteous human being have been sufficient in the past year? What would “sufficient deeds” look like?
Read through the full text of Avinu Malkeinu. Which lines resonate with you? Which lines disturb you? How can you understand the inclusion of these more challenging lines in our liturgy?
Many pop-culture musicians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have recorded versions of Avinu Malkeinu (including Barbra Streisand and Phish). Why do you think these words are compelling to so many people? Listen to Scottish rock band Mogwai’s twenty-minute instrumental version of this prayer. What emotions does it evoke? Are they the same as what you feel in synagogue when reciting this prayer? Look for other recordings online and see if you can find one that helps you connect with this ancient petition.
For Families and Kids:
Parents can love you very much and also let you know when you’ve done something wrong. How do you feel when a parent disciplines you for making a mistake? How do you remember that they still love you, no matter what?
We don’t have a king in this country, but you have probably heard many stories about kings around the world and throughout history. What do you think makes a good king? Can you imagine God as a king of the whole world? What are other ways to imagine God?