In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu. “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought. He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”
Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”
Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.
But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered; a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.
This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.
Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.
The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please” And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year. As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…
The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.