Aveenu Malkeinu: What a Wonderful Paradox
Sep 9th 2013

The prayer Aveenu Malkeinu— our Father, our King—is one of the more familiar pieces of High Holy Day liturgy. We recite it in the concluding sections of many of the prayer services during Rosh Hashanah and every weekday morning during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah—the ten days of penitence. Most dramatically, Aveenu Malkeinu concludes the I service on Yom Kippur, offering us one final chance to ask God to seal us in the Book of Life for the coming year. We can all hear the melody as we picture the late hour, the open ark, and the pangs of hunger that are telltale signs of the end of Yom Kippur.

I am always intrigued by the author’s choice of phrase, Aveenu Malkeinu. In one breath, we are describing God as being both extremely distant and incredibly close. The image of God as a parent evokes emotions of comfort and forgiveness. God as monarch, on the other hand, suggests images of sternness and a commitment to justice. How can we reconcile these very different depictions of God?

One way is to consider ourselves as the only category of persons who can truthfully refer to their father as both parent and monarch—a prince or princess. By considering ourselves to hold this level of status during these holy days, we are reminded of another High Holy Day paradox— that we are made to feel both very large, in control of our own fate and actions, and yet also tiny, as if we are almost powerless in the face of divine judgement. This imagery of royalty elevates us during a time of the year where it would be easy to feel very small.

This dichotomy of Aveenu and Malkeinu also summarizes the entire fall season of Jewish holidays. Sometimes we gather in ways that correlate to God as monarch, times where formality and procedure are important. Kol Nidrei comes to mind as an example. Yet, there are many more occasions where we celebrate in a manner more befitting of God as parent: the comfort provided during Yizkor on Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret; the warmth of family meals; enjoying a beautiful sukkah with friends; and the joy of Sim˙hat Torah.

This paradox also mirrors our work at Beth Tzedec, though rather than seeing these two concepts as separate and oppositional, we try to combine them. When we educate, we do not look to separate classroom learning from activities and fun.

We recognize that content can be conveyed not only through formal lectures and presentations, but also through games, hands-on projects, field trips and informal interactions. This approach has helped shape many new programs and initiatives for youth, teens and families at the Synagogue, including more family tikkun olam programs and a planned service-learning trip for high schoolers to the Jersey Shore which will take place over Thanksgiving weekend this year.

Most dramatically, this educational philosophy has guided significant changes in our Congregational School. Thanks to a generous grant from UJA Federation’s Toronto WOW! Initiative, we are introducing exciting new opportunities, including a Grade 3 hands-on Jewish holidays based curriculum and more experiential learning opportunities for our older grades. We will be integrating our school program with our youth and Shabbat programming so that our learners can actualize their education and continue to build strong Jewish connections.

For information about any of these initiatives, or to suggest your own ideas, please call me at 416-781-3514 ext. 231. Rachel and I wish each of you and your families a Shanah Tovah, a sweet and healthy New Year.