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Returning

It's Rosh Hashanah. What better time for Your Humble Blogger to rededicate himself to this Tohu Bohu?

Not that I am promising daily updates. I'm just going to try, again, to get back into the habit of occasional notes, both serious and frivolous, on various topics.

And since it's Rosh Hashanah, I'll look at one of our great Rosh Hashanah prayers, Avinu Malkeinu.

Digression, that isn't really a digression: This is not the note I set out to write. I set out to write a note highlighting the beauty of the final verse, as it is sung and prayed. I got onto a different track, and the following is where it led me. End Digression.

The Avinu Malkeinu is named, obviously enough, for the two words that begin each of the thirty- or forty-odd lines of the supplicatory prayer. They are traditionally translated “Our Father, Our King”, or in modern translations something like “Our Parent, Our Sovereign”. My current synagogue alternates, I think, between “Our Father, Our King” and “Our Mother, Our Queen”. At any rate, they are translated as nouns with the third-person plural possessive suffix. And that's clear: av is father, so avinu is ‘our father'; melech is king, so malkeinu is ‘our king'. Clear enough.

It's a laundry-list prayer of petition, asking for prosperity and happiness and freedom and glory, asking to not have pestilence and plague and war and famine, as well as talking about the Divine mercy and dwelling on our ancestors who have died for the sanctification of the Name. And at the end is the part we all sing together. Track 19 on this site will give a sense of the sound of it, I hope. It's a beautiful prayer:

Avinu Malkeinu. Chaneinu Va'aneinu. Avinu malkeinu, Chaneinu va'aneinu, ki eyn banu ma'asim. Avinu Malkeinu. Chaneinu Va'aneinu. Avinu malkeinu, Chaneinu va'aneinu, ci eyn banu ma'asim. Asay imanu, tzedakah v'chesed. Asay imanu tzedakah v'chesed v'hoshieinu. Avinu Malkeinu.

I wound up focused on the first four words, the ones that get repeated so often: Avinu Malkeinu. Chaneinu Va'aneinu. In all the translations I have seen, the second two words are translated as verbs in the imperative, with first-person plural objects. So chanan is to show favor, so chaneinu is ‘favor us'; anah is to answer, so aneinu is ‘answer us'. The translation I grew up with begins the verse Our Father, our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us.

So, my thought, that got me started away from where I had been headed on this note, was to wonder, given the way the words work, whether it was possible that instead of two nouns and two verbs, we had potentially four nouns. Something like Our parent, our monarch, our grace, our answer. I find that nicely poetic. And it changes the rhythm of the translation a bit. I'll give the full verse in the translation of my youth: Our Father, our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us, for lo, we are unworthy; deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us. The break there (and in the melody) is after the lack of merit. The first half of the verse is Divine, pity us, though we are unworthy and the second is Have charity and save us. But if you change the third and fourth to nouns, then it’s more like Our Father, our King, our Grace, our Answer, though we are unworthy, deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us. It changes the center of the sentence, shifting the focus to deal (or do, if you prefer, do to us charity and kindness) (or maybe make, making charity as if one were making supper) instead of having a first focus on answer and a secondary focus on save. Or that's how I read the change, if we make all four nouns. Not to mention the lovely idea of the Divine being, rather than providing, our grace. Being our answer.

But then I thought: what if all four are verbs? Instead of Our Father, our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us, something on the lines of father us, rule us, favor us, answer us. By a verb of father, it could mean engender, sure, or something more like raise or bring up. And that's a whole different sense of the verse. Instead of declaring the Divine relationship (via Isaian metaphor, of course) and then beginning the petition, we would be started with a petition from the very beginning. And then we're back to the focus of the rhythm coming down on the unworthiness (depending on the rest of the word choices).

You know how sometimes—well, most of the time—people sing “Gd Bless America” as if it were boasting of the Divine blessing? It's not written that way. It's a supplication, asking humbly enough for the Divine to stand beside and guide us, and to bless us (vaddevah dat means). But it doesn't sound like one, at least most Sundays. Not that Avinu Malkeinu doesn't sound like a supplication. That part is inescapable. But it feels different, to me, if instead of reading those words as a declaration, we read them as a request.

Now, for one thing, I don't have the grammar to make any serious argument that you can read Avinu Malkeinu as verbs. At best, it's a speculative interpretation, a sort of riff on the text. But it's tempting.

And yet.

During these days of awe, when everything hangs in the balance, when the Book of Life is open and unwritten… the one thing that is never called into question is the relationship between the Divine and the People. We may be written in the Book of Life, or we may not—the Divine is still our Father and our King. We may receive the Divine Mercy, or the judgment may be stern—the Divine is still our Mother and our Queen. We may in the new year live or die, be sick or well, poor or rich, alone or surrounded, and we give ourselves up to that. But we will be the child and the subject of the Divine. There is never even a hint that the Divine may withdraw the paternal or sovereign relation from us. It is unconditional.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

> There is never even a hint that the Divine may withdraw the paternal or sovereign relation from us. It is unconditional.

Hmm, so: Perhaps the verby form isn't supplication after all, but a statement of readiness, of willingness, of submission. We aren't pleading with the Divine to parent us and rule us, we are expressing, confirming, reaffirming, that we are here to be parented and ruled.

(I'm not sure I find that take to be personally appealing. I think the flavor of Judaism that I like best is the one where the Divine did all this stuff, and told you how to go live your life, and really it's up to you now, 'cause the Divine isn't going to be in your face very day, making new rules and nagging you to clean your room and all that stuff, at this point. Where you are more like a newly-minted adult, sent off to make your own choices seek your fortune, certain to make mistakes, but with a good upbringing to help you deal with them; than like a small child, still struggling to figure out why certain choices even lead to certain consequences in the first place.)


Statement of readiness is an interesting take on it, surely. Although it isn't necessary--we can rely on the general relationship and still petition for a particular act, just as a child can need parenting at a particular moment (well on into adulthood) without calling into question the relationship at other times.

Or, to connect to other bits of the liturgy, the way we say things like Have mercy, Gd of Mercy or Inscribe us in the Book of Life, Gd of Life. The attribute of Mercy is always part of the Divine; but we are asking for a particular act of mercy, which we can not rely on.

Thanks,
-V.


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