Sunday, September 10, 2006

Avinu Malkeinu

The Ten Days of Teshuvah approach. During that time, we dwell on our sins. We also say Avinu Malkeinu, which ends with a well-known song that contains the phrase "eyn banu ma'asim"--we have no deeds or acts or the like. More literally, it means we have no deeds in us--the usual way of saying "we don't have" is eyn lanu, not eyn banu.

But what does that mean? We're saying we have no deeds at the same time that we're listing all our bad deeds. English translators of siddurim recognize the problem and fix it incorrectly--they English it as "we have no good deeds" or words to that effect. The problem with this translation is that it makes no sense. Instead of quarreling with it or citing texts about the delicate balance of good deeds and bad, we'll just say it's obviously false.

To figure out what "eyn banu ma'asim" means in this context, let's divide Avinu Malkeinu into seven sections. In fact, we only need the first five sections for our purposes; sections 6 and 7 are bonus sections.

Section 1

Section 1 consists of the first three lines. It's just an introduction--it's us, we've sinned, for the sake of your name forgive us.

Section 2

Section 2 is a wish list of things we want from God--a good year, the ripping of the unhappy decree, good health, and so on. Note that all of these are things that aren't entirely under our control. We can improve our chances--don't eat crap, don't start fights--but we're asking here for results that we can't guarantee for ourselves. Section 2 takes up most of Avinu Malkeinu.

Section 3

In section 3, we're no longer asking for things--now we're referring back to the list and telling God why he should fulfil these requests. In the first through third of the four lines that make up section three, we ask God to do these things for the sake of our martyrs: "Act--do it--for the sake of those who were murdered for your holiness. Act for the sake of those who were slaughtered for proclaiming your unity. Act for the sake of those who went into flame and water sanctifying your name." Each of these three begins with 'aseh--act, do it. Fulfill our requests for these reasons.

In the fourth line of section 3, we ask God to avenge before our eyes the spilled blood of his servants. Thematically, it's part of section 3, although its structure is like that of the requests in section 2.

Section 4

In the first line of section 4, we realize that maybe we were being a little hutzpehdik in section 3: "Act--'aseh--for your sake if not for our sake." The remaining three lines all also begin with 'aseh. "Act--'aseh--for your sake and save us. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great mercy. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great, mighty, and awe-inspiring name, which we call upon."

Section 5

In section 5, we finally get to the well known song, up to the words we've been trying to figure out, eyn banu ma'asim: we have no deeds, or we have no deeds in us.

Ma'asim (deeds) and 'aseh (the imperative verb meaning "act" or "do it") have the same root. For those who don't know any Hebrew, this is ma'aseh, the singular of ma'asim, printed without vowels:


This is 'aseh:


The similarity should be very clear.

What does one do ('aseh)? One does deeds (ma'asim). The ma'asim we're talking about are the requests in section 2, which we're asking God to do ('aseh). And why are we asking God to do them? Because these are things that we can't get for ourselves. They are deeds that we don't have it within us to do--deeds about which we can say "eyn banu ma'asim."

Section 6

Well, now we've figured out what the heck "eyn banu ma'asim" means. Section 6 is the first of the two bonus sections. The song continues with "'aseh 'imanu tzedakah vahesed"--treat us with charity and lovingkindness. I propose an alternative reading, based on ignoring idiom and translating it on a word-by-word basis. 'Imanu literally means "together with us." Translating this word by word, we get, "Together with us, do charity and lovingkindness." Under this reading, we're no longer dwelling on what we can't do; we're now volunteering to what we can--to collaborate with God on charity and lovingkindness. Actually, we're inviting God to collaborate with us on this.

Section 7

Avinu Malkeinu concludes with "vehoshi'enu"--"and save us." Saving us is still in God's hands, like all the items in section 2. And, not presuming to read God's allegorical mind, why shouldn't he save us, given what we just volunteered for in chapter 6, assuming we use the alternative reading I propose?