Sinai Synagogue, Tuesday PM, October 8, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
There once was a drought in the Land of Israel. Amidst the suffering, the great sage, Rabbi Eliezer, beseeched God to release water from the Heavens. Rabbi Eliezer revered far and wide as one of the great scholars of his day. His students described him as a plastered cistern who never loses a drop of water for he retained every detail that he learned.
He declared 13 fasts for the people. This was a major public event - a communal fast meant that the community would come together and fast all day as rabbis would intone a special series of prayers prescribed by the Mishnah:
“When they have stood up to pray (the Amidah), they shall bring before the ark an elder, a scholar, who is experienced, and who has children, but his house is empty so that his heart will be wholly devoted to the Amidah(that is, a scholar with young children might not be able to focus on the needs of all the people or might be burdened by providing for the needs of his own children). He recites twenty-four blessings: eighteen that are recited every day (in the weekday Amidah) and adds to them six additional blessings ( which are special for the fast).”
For thirteen days the community gathered and fasted during the day and Rabbi Eliezer intoned the assigned prayers … and nothing happened. Not a drop. By the thirteenth day you can imagine people had started to give up. The process was not working and people were feeling a little embarrassed for Rabbi Eliezer. So they made it clear to Rabbi Eliezer that they were done with putting their lives on hold, gathering for these communal fasts, and joining him in the special worship.
“Well then, have you prepared graves for yourselves? Because death is the only other option if you are finished with communal prayer!” Stung by the painful rebuke by this great scholar, the people began to cry. And the rain fell.
Another year, another drought, another story. Once again Rabbi Eliezer roused the community to prayer and fasting. Once again Rabbi Eliezer recited the formula of 24 blessings to stimulate God to respond favorably. And once again nothing. Not a drop, not a hint of humidity. But this time his student Rabbi Akiva descended down to the bima after Rabbi Eliezer. Instead of the Amidah, instead of the 18 benedictions and the 6 additional petitions to bring rain, this is what Rabbi Akiva said:
Ayn lanu Melekh eleh Atah.
Our Father our King, we have no king but you.
Our Father our King have mercy on us.
And the rain fell.
You would think that everyone would rejoice at this point – Rabbi Akiva’s prayer worked! However there were some among the rabbis who murmured against him. Of course Rabbi Akiva was already considered one of the greatest and courageous rabbis of the day. But still, what was Rabbi Akiva doing? He put to shame his teacher Rabbi Eliezer. Who authorized this prayer? This was not prescribed. You don’t just make stuff up!
And then a heavenly voice rang out and said:
Do not think that this rabbi is greater than that one. Rather this one maavir al midotav (passes over his character traits) and this one does not maavir al midotav.
We will get to the meaning of maavir al midotav in a moment. For now I simply want to point out that this is the origin of the prayer we all are familiar with and we recite several times during Yom Kippur – the Avinu Malkeynu.
The Avinu Malkeynu that we recite on page 473 is quite a bit longer than Rabbi Akiva’s impromptu version. In fact over the centuries there were a number of versions of Avinu Malkeynu, mostly adding to a previous generation’s version. For example a version on page 886 has lines asking God to avenge those who were martyred which were added after the Crusades.
As an aside I also want to point out that while Avinu Malkeynu is translated traditionally as Our Father, Our King note that in Rabbi Akiva’s version his four line prayer is constructed in a classic chiastic fashion. The first and third lines are Avinu Malkeynu. The second line references Melekh, and we expect the fourth line to reference the word Av, father. Rather the word Rachem, mercy in the fourth line is parallel to Melekh in the second. The root of the word Rachem is the root of the word womb. So in a way Rabbi Akiva has made sure to reference God as both Father and Mother.
Back to our story of Avinu Malkeynu. What is the message the rabbis of the Talmud indicate in this story about one rabbi’s success and one rabbi’s failure to sway God?
There are two lessons that I think we learn from this tale and why Avinu Malkeynu has become so essential to our Yom Kippur worship.
First is that at this time of year when we should be experiencing a moment of spiritual urgency and whenever we are in crisis, the words that are meaningful are not the formulaic, tried and true prayers, it’s the heartfelt offerings of our lips, the pure and honest outpourings of our hearts that makes all the difference. The Baal Shem Tov stated about prayer that "Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates.” While we spend this night and the next 24 hours in worship, contemplation, reflection let us recall these words of the Baal Shem Tov, we need to find the axe within ourselves to break through all the obstacles to opening our hearts and spirit and reach out to that transcendent Power and Creative force our tradition calls God.
There is one more message as to why Rabbi Akiva’s Avinu Malkeynu was more effective than Rabbi Eliezer’s standard operating procedure. It has to do with the conclusion of the Talmud’s story – that Rabbi Akiva is one who is Maavir al Midotav.
What does it mean to be maavir al midotav? Midot in rabbinic literature usually refers to the ethical qualities of a person. But they can also refer to negative qualities. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of the Hadar Institute notes that a statement by the Talmudic rabbi Rava refers to this: Whoever passes over his midotav, his sins are passed over. Rashi explains the term ‘maavir al midotav’ means “who is not exacting in measuring out retaliation for those who trouble him, rather setting aside his retaliations and moving on…” In other words, one who passes over his midotav or his retaliations, as Rabbi Kaunfer translates the term, is a person who does not hold a grudge, who does not let small indignities bother him, who is not really bothered by the effrontery of others. He accepts people for who they are and lets things roll off his back.
And who is the great example of one who is maavir al midotav, who passes over the desire to retaliate, who ignores indignities? It is God - as the prophet Micah stated in a passage we recited at Tashlikh - “Who is a God like You, Who bears iniquity and passes over sin; Who does not maintain wrath forever.”
The heavenly voice explained to the sages that it was Rabbi Akiva who most exemplified qualities of the Divine and so his prayers were heeded. Rabbi Eliezer as we saw in the first story of a drought lashed out at the community when he felt that they were giving up too easily in calling upon God’s beneficence. Rabbi Akiva did not focus his anxiety on the people, he simply opened his heart and spoke truly. Was God responding to the words or Akiva’s patient and true spirit?
It is not just the words, we say at this time of year. It is the persons that we are, the values we exhibit, the restraints we put on our natural impulses.
It’s not the formula, it’s the honesty and sincerity of the words. It’s not the words, it is our total personhood that must present itself at this time before God.
As we enter this Day of Awesome Power, may we yearn to make our lives worthy for our heartfelt words to be heard.