Rosh Hashanah: Avinu Malkenu by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Rosh HaShana Day


Temple Beth El

Harrisonburg VA

14 September 2015

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Shana Tova! 

I have had the honor of greeting you with Shana Tova for 20 years. We arrive, each year, sometimes with excitement, with curiousity, with eager anticipation, eyes wide, hearts open. Some years, we’re barely been able to drag ourselves to— and then through— the synagogue doors. Burdened with cares, worries, or heartbreak, we wonder why we’ve come. We may think: the pews are uncomfortable, I don’t know anyone, those I do know I don’t want to see. The prayerbook is outdated, I don’t know the music.  

Some years, we’re not ready for anything new. Yet we show up, in spite of ourselves, in spite of all the voices saying “there’s nothing here for me.”

Each of us is here, now, in spite of our ambivalence, our cynicism, our reticence, in spite of, or because of our depleted spirits, our aching souls, of our broken hearts, in spite of and because of our physical or psychic pain. We’re here, creating community, on this day, in this place, under this vaulted ceiling, under today’s sky. We’re here, gathered with other Jews, to somehow, אף על פחן למרות הכול, in spite of the many forces that mitigate against our being here in this moment. We’ve arrived. 

We’ve arrived to welcome ourselves and one another into a New Year. We’ve come here to imagine together, to sing together, and to dream together. We’ve come here to celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. We’ve come to claim the possibility of renewal. We’re here to say YES, together, to the possibililty of hope.

Today is Monday, September 14, 2015. For millions of people, it’s just another day. A day that signals a new week. For us, today is the first of Tishrei, 5776. We claim this day as the first of our new year, and indeed, the very birthday of the world. We Jews, a people with a history of wandering, a nation with a history of loss, we defiantly name this as a day of hope, a day of sacred memory, Yom HaZikaron. And we claim this day as Yom Teruah, the day on which we wake up ourselves and one another with the raw and raucous sounds of the shofar.

Each of us brings burdens into this sanctuary today. But we have come today to put down those burdens, to imagine walking unencumbered, free. We come here to remember, and to look ahead, to imagine a world in which there will be less pain and more peace. We come to this place to cast our lot with one another, with a people who renew ourselves every year, with special words, and particular tunes, and with an abundance of ritual foods. 

Imagination—and hope—are two essential parts of our commemoration today.

For both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we use a special prayerbook, a Machzor. The word Machzor is related means a cycle, circuit, a turn. We use this book every year to reclaim our place in the cycle, the circuit of the year, to reflect our own turning, our own teshuvah. Today, and for the next 10 days, each of us will turn. We’ll turn back to the year that has passed and attempt to do so with compassion, for ourselves and others. And we’ll turn forward with hope, however tentative.  

You hold in your hands The Gates of Repentence. When it was introduced in 1978, it represented exciting and progressive liturgical innovation. However, as the years passed, many Reform Jews sought a fresh approach to these Days of Awe. Many of our congregations, including this one, welcomed a new weekly prayerbook, Mishkan Tfilah.

This year, our movement welcomed a new machzor,  Mishkan HaNefesh.

Why did we need a new machzor? Aren’t Jewish prayers fixed and timeless? How is this machzor different from the Gates of Repentence?   

Mishkan HaNefesh, like Mishkan Tefilah, includes transliteration. In addition, Mishkan HaNefesh addresses the concerns of many today who feel disconnected from prayer and from theological and ideological concepts that may seem at odds with contemporary experience. Mishkan HaNefesh welcomes individuals from all backgrounds to find meaning in the High Holy Days.

I’d like to introduce a couple of the innovations to you so that you can sample the work of my extraordinary rabbinic and cantorial colleagues. That is why I am speaking with you now, before we begin the Torah service.

For many years, we Reform Jews have enriched the Rosh HaShana Torah service by adding several prayers that many include in the Musaf, or additional service on Rosh HaShana morning. We’re going to consider how Mishkan HaNefesh introduces Avinu Malkenu. 

Our editors first offer an introduction the guiding metaphors of this prayer, two complementary names for—or imaginings of—God.

“We call you Avinu

as a loving Parent, forgive our wrongs and failings; accept us in our human frailty.

We call you Malkenu

as Sovereign of our souls, help us rise from our brokenness to build a world of shalom.”

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes,

“These names made sense in antiquity, when kings and fathers were authoritarian power brokers. Nowadays, though, we run from such relationships. Americans abolished monarchy eons ago. Do you know how many people tell me privately that their fathers were absent or even abusive? Calling God “father” helps for some, but causes pain to others….yet worship requires our calling God something or other. The solution lies in understanding that what we name God says more about the power of our imagination than it does about God. Prayer is really all about imagination, the conceptual roadmap that we humans have to take us beyond ourselves. Nothing grand and glorious comes without imagination. Love, loyalty, honor, character: These must all be imagined before they can be believed. That’s what great art or poetry does—and liturgy too. They instill imagination….”

Think about it. Without imagination there would be no art, no music, no dance or sport. Without imagination there would be no buildings or bridges or automobiles. Without imagination there would be no life-saving medications, no devices to enable the deaf to hear or the blind to see.

Repeating this prayer is not about professing belief. These words stretch our imagination, expand our creativity, extend our spirits. These words tantalize and challenge our sense of what is possible in our lives, and in the world. 

Hoffman continues, “Life requires imagination, and prayer is the longest-running play of imagination that we humans have ever devised.” [1]

According to the Talmud, the first to call God Avinu, Malkenu is Rabbi Akiva, the first century sage. Here is Akiva’s simple prayer:

Avinu Malkeinu, We have no sovereign but You.

Avinu Malkeinu, for Your sake show us kindness. 

Over many centuries, these two lines were amplified and expanded upon, becoming a fixed part of High Holiday liturgy and extending to forty-four verses in some traditions.[2]

Today we will read a version that includes 8 verses. Take a look at the handout before you. As you can see, the editors have invited us to use the Hebrew words that describe God, nudging us to imagine the Source of All not as a literal—or fantasized—Father or King, but rather, we are invited to consider the qualities of God’s care for us. First we are challenged to think of a power that is Almighty, more capable and competent than any human being, the embodiment of strength and dignity and justice. Let that sink in. Think of a power that is Almighty, more capable and competent than any human being, the embodiment of strength and dignity and justice. 

We are simultaneously invited to imagine a Being who is Merciful, One who embodies kindness, compassion, and care. Imagine that: a Being who is generous and Merciful, One who embodies kindness, compassion, and care.

These two qualities are rarely found in one human being. And this is why this language draws us back, year after year, throughout our lives. The words of our liturgy invite us to use our imagination. On these Holy Days, we envision a world in which we would feel both protected AND loved, shielded from harm AND deeply understood. Avinu Malkeinu is not simply a fantastic verbal construction. Avinu Malkenu is a gift from one generation to the next: a mysterious linking of images of strength and sensitivity, of power and patience, of awe and empathy.

Is this why you came here today? Did you leave your home, your dorm room, in search of a few words to guide you into the new year?[3]

The machzor, our ancient and ever-renewed liturgy has been waiting for you, just as this congregation has been waiting for you. When you entered these doors, you were handed a script for “the longest running play of imagination that we humans have ever devised.” In a few moments, we will repeat, together, Avinu Malkenu, invoking majesty and possibility, protection and companionship, support and intimacy. Together, we’ll imagine a Source that can sustain us all the days of our lives. Together, we’ll join in the ancient drama we claim today as we enter this New Year.

And so, my friends, join me now, with hearts and minds open to imagining a world in which each of us can call out to an Other, and to others. Today we begin again, claiming hope as our banner, celebrating the resilience of the human spirit, reaffirming our presence as members of a community which says YES to life, to joy, to imagination and to hope, that eternal flame that blazes in every soul.

L’Shana tova.



[2] Edward Feld, “Avinu Malkeinu: Historical Background,” in Machzor: Challenge and Change (CCAR,2010), pp. 7-9.

[3] Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) wrote, “Everyone seeks a home, a refuge. And I am always in search of a few words.” An Interrupted Life (NY: Pocket Books, 1981).