Sunday, October 09, 2016

Avinu Malkenu (ver. 2.0)

Let me clarify. This is not version 2.0 of Avinu Malkenu, but version 2.0 of this sermon.

We recite Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, our King) during the Ten Days of Teshuvah as well as on fast days throughout the year. It ends with a well-known song that contains the phrase "ein banu ma'asim"--we have no deeds or acts or the like. More literally, it means we have no deeds within us--the usual way of saying "we don't have" is ein lanu, not ein banu.

This raises two questions. First, we're saying we have no deeds on the same days that we're alphabetically listing our bad deeds in the Viduy (Confession). 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. We know that we have good deeds. Furthermore, we're supposed to act as though both our scale and that of the world, of which we're part, is evenly balanced between good and bad deeds. If we think in these terms, we realize that every deed, whether good or bad, tips the balance on both scales. To proclaim that we have bad deeds and no good deeds is counterproductive. The second question is why we say "ein banu ma'asim (we have no deeds within us) instead of just "ein lanu ma'asim" (we have no deeds).

To figure out what "ein banu ma'asim" means in this context, let's divide Avinu Malkenu 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. We're asking for results that are out of our control. We can influence the process and improve our chances--don't eat unhealthy stuff, don't start fights, be a good person--but we're asking here for results that we can't guarantee for ourselves. Section 2 takes up most of Avinu Malkenu.

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 do these things for us. In the first through third of the four lines that make up section 3, we ask God to do these things for the sake of our martyrs: "Do it--act--for the sake of those who were murdered for your holiness. Do it for the sake of those who were slaughtered for proclaiming your unity. Do it for the sake of those who went into flame and water sanctifying your name." Each of these three begins with "'aseh"--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. It's sort of part of section 3, because it's about our martyrs, but it's also sort of part of section 2, because we're asking for a result that we can't guarantee.

Section 4

In the first line of section 4, we realize that maybe we were being a little hutzpedik 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, "ein banu ma'asim": we have no deeds, or we have no deeds in us.

In the most general context-free sense, what does one do? One does deeds. Or what is a deed? It's something someone does. Ma'asim (deeds) and 'aseh (the imperative verb meaning "act" or "do it") have the same root, and are even more tangled up in one another than do and deed. This is ma'aseh, the singular of ma'asim:

מעשה
.

This is 'aseh:

עשה
.

In Avinu Malkenu, we ask God to do ('aseh) deeds (ma'asim) for us. These are the ma'asim that "ein banu ma'asim" refers to. And these are deeds that we can't do for ourselves; we don't have it within us to do them. Thus "ein banu ma'asim."

Section 6

Well, now we've figured out what "ein 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 verbatim. 'Imanu literally means "together with us." Translating this word by word, we get, "Do, together with us, charity and lovingkindness." This is remarkable. We often say that someone who does charity and lovingkindness is doing God's work. Under this reading, we are taking the initiative. We're claiming charity and lovingkindness as our work and asking God to sign up to help out as a volunteer.

Section 7

Avinu Malkenu concludes with "vehoshi'enu"--"and save us." Saving us is still in God's allegorical hands, like all the items in section 2. And, not presuming to read God's allegorical mind, it's possible that charity and lovingkindness might influence the outcome in a positive way.

Conclusion

So what's my conclusion? Avinu Malkenu is somewhat about human helplessness, sort of. But it is absolutely not a call for human passivity.

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