Ever seen master straight man Carl Reiner question Mel Brooks’ two-thousand year old man? Reiner asks the sage to describe how religion first developed. “It was like this,” Brooks replies, “When I was a kid there was a guy in the neigboring tribe who was twice as big and strong as anyone else - his name was Phil. Everybody was afraid of Phil when he came into our camp, because if he was in a bad mood he would beat people up as he went along. We used to pray, ‘Please don’t be mad at us, Phil. Please don’t step on us or break our arms...O great and powerful, Phil!”
“One day it started raining really hard. As Phil came over the hill, a bolt of lightening flashed down from the sky and knocked him dead in his tracks. It was then we knew: there was someone bigger than Phil!”
The great awesome Phil has only one name, but when we think of God in Judaism, our God is so powerful, so unique in the eyes of individual Jews, that there are countless names for the Divine. But on the High Holy days, two names stand out.
Avinu! Malkeinu! .....Our Father! Our King!
It is strange, because the rest of the year, I don’t really think of God as father, and I certainly don’t resonate personally with the image of God as a masculine monarch. But what would the High Holy Days be without Avinu Malkeinu?
In fact, Avinu Malkeinu contains multitudes. Malkeinu is a name for a Divine ruler, God of Judgement sitting on the high and holy throne of heaven. And yet the image of Avinu is a kind parent...caring, compassionate, intimate, not distant from us, but near as can be. The reason we will repeat Avinu Malkeinu so many times throughout this holy season is that our liturgy is designed not only to helps us move the Divine from the throne of judgement, to the seat of mercy, but also to help ourselves surrender our judgemental side in order to rediscover our own compassion. Not only in the ways we relate to ourselves, but in the way we interact with our buisiness associates, friends and family.
It would be so much easier of Phil could just wave his strong hands and make miracles happen. However, we refer to our God as Avinu Malkeinu, a God who according to Rabbi Karen Kedar, “is beyond reach and can only be understood in pictures that are diverse and rich. God is father-like, and mother-like, God is like a king, but in actuality, God is none of the above.” God is the ineffable, impossible to name force that challenges us to raise our game, and to turn from our default stance of rigor and judgement towards one another in empathy and love.
1 Thanks to Rabbi Lawrence Englander for sharing this story in his essay “Re-imagining God,” in Naming God from Jewish Lights Publishing 2015.
2. Thanks to Rabbi Edwin Goldberg editor of Mishkan HaNefesh for highlighting this teaching in Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, p.13
3. Rabbi Karen Kedar in her essay “Why We Say Things We Don’t Believe,” from Naming God, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014.