Prayer: Our Father, Our King
What is God?
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The origin of Jewish prayer is rather vague. But there is one prayer that has a somewhat concrete history of its development. This is called Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, our King). The Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) records an incident in which a drought occurred and Rabbi Eliezer led the community in a 24-blessing Amidah, the expanded format when prayer for community emergencies. His prayers were not successful. He was followed by Rabbi Akiva who said, ‘Our Father, our King, we have no King other than You; our Father, our King, for Your sake he has mercy upon us’. The rains came. The Talmud continues that a heavenly voice resounded and explained that it wasn’t because Rabbi Akiva was greater than Rabbi Eliezer that this was the way things worked out, but because Rabbi Akiva was able to overcome his own personality glitches more than Rabbi Eliezer.
This prayer, interestingly enough, is still widely recited to this day. It has been greatly expanded over the centuries. From its original form of two lines, it now has between 25 and 45 of these expressions beginning with the phrase ‘Avinu Malkenu’. The expressions differ from community to community but there are general similarities aside from the opening phrase of each line.
This basic structure of this prayer does have an older precedent of sorts. There is a story in the Mishna about a man named Honi, who is nicknamed Hama’agil (the circle-drawer). He lived sometime in the 1st century BCE and was famous for his ability to intercede with God. One time when there was a drought (this was among the more common calamities of the time), they asked him to pray for rain. He confidently told the people to bring their clay ovens into their houses, lest they dissolve in the rainfall. He prayed and nothing happened. He then drew a circle (hence his nickname) and announced, ‘Master of the Universe, Your children are depending on me as if I am a member of Your household. I swear in Your great name that I shall not move from here until You have mercy on Your children’ It began to drizzle. Honi declared that this was not what he intended. It began to rain buckets. He then announced that he intended rain that was a blessing. At that point it began to rain as it was supposed to. Finally the Jews had to ascend to the temple mount to get out of the growing waters. His final request was, ‘Just as I prayed on behalf of them that it should rain, so I pray that the rains should cease’.
This is all very nice, and even a little humorous, but is it for real? Does prayer really make it rain? Can this guy Honi just announce that he’s not leaving the circle until it starts raining, and God has to get off His cloud and get to work? And if it’s so easy, why did he have to keep tweaking the results until God finally got it right? Can Rabbi Akiva just mumble a few short lines with a couple of key words and that opens up the floodgates? If it was so easy, why didn’t he just tell Rabbi Eliezer the secret formula and let him avoid the embarrassment of failure? What is this formula anyway? Our Father, our King – why is it so special in Judaism? Why is it any better than any other way of addressing God? Is this a new image that we have to add to our growing list?
First let’s look at the two stories a little closer to find out what it was that made these prayers work. Anybody could pray. Maybe they’ll get the result they want, maybe they won’t. What Honi did was to refuse to budge until God acceded to his request. He was not really putting God on the spot - he was putting himself on the spot. He simply refused to stop until he succeeded. He really didn’t need the circle, but it sure adds to the story.
How does this force God to listen to him? It doesn’t, but it does get God’s attention. God may not be all that interested in genuine needs, like getting a financial break or finding love or being cured of an illness. If the person who needs these things so badly can only find a few minutes of precious time every once in a while, and even at those select moments does little more than go through the motions, God may take about as much spiritual interest in that person’s life as the person does. But if the person pulls off a Honi and says that everything in his or her life stops right here, and nothing else matters except for this, then God looks up and says, ‘OK, now we have somebody who wants to talk turkey’.
This is really what Honi did. He was serious. He put all his eggs in this one basket. He openly stated that it was only God who could bring the rain and there was no point in doing anything else until it rained. God listens to people who really talk to God.
That the thing had to be tweaked to get it right seems like a test to see how serious Honi really was. If he took off as soon as a couple of drops fell, God might have just let him go his merry way. If he accepted a torrential downpour instead of rain of blessing, God may not have respected him as a true believer in divine goodness. He was like a child asking a parent for something. He could talk to God with love and honor; he understood that only God could fulfill his wishes; but he also was able to do it with no qualms about really making demands.
This last condition – no qualms about making demands – is vital to a successful prayer. This is really what Rabbi Akiva did. Rabbi Eliezer may have been just as spiritually capable as Rabbi Akiva, as the Talmud seems to suggest. It wasn’t just some magic words that Rabbi Akiva happened to know and Rabbi Eliezer didn’t. It was, as the Talmud says, because Rabbi Akiva was able to overcome his personality glitches whereas Rabbi Eliezer couldn’t. What does this mean? The Talmud just got through saying that Rabbi Akiva was not greater than Rabbi Eliezer. Doesn’t this make him greater?
Perhaps there is a simple answer to this classic Talmudic-style question. Perhaps Rabbi Akiva really had nothing over Rabbi Eliezer. But he did do one thing that Rabbi Eliezer just couldn’t get himself to do. He was able to overcome something in his personality. He was able to make an outrageous demand. This very likely was not in his nature. But the needs of the time dictated that somebody had to have the Honi-like chutzpa and really put it to God.
His formula was nothing magical. It was simply a way of framing his outrageous demand in as respectful a manner as possible. He declared to God, ‘You are our Father and our King. We have no other King. Do it for Your own sake, but we really need a break’. The ‘Father’ part is right out of Honi’s book. To really make outrageous requests you have to look upon God as a Father who would do anything for His kids if the kids really want it. It’s asking your Father, who just cannot turn down a really heartfelt and genuine need of His beloved children.
The King part is a declaration of our own genuine dependence on God. Half-hearted prayer is half-hearted for a good reason. We really don’t think the guy at the other end can deliver the goods. We really think that with a little luck, we’ll somehow pull it off ourselves, but it never hurts to have God in on the thing. This is not really prayer at all. This is just hedging your bets. To really pray means to acknowledge that God, and God alone, can pull this off. We may have to put in a great deal of effort to demonstrate to God that we truly deserve whatever it is that we are asking. But the bottom line is that God is the King. God makes things happen.
There is a new image of God that comes out of all this. It is the image of God who can be addressed as a respected but familiar Source of blessing. Fathers are supposed to be loving and kind. They may have to be a little stern at times, but they should mean well. Kings are a good deal more distant, but they are still accessible in some way. It may take a few well-place connections or a few words in the right places, but a king can be accessed. God is like that. God has to be treated like royalty. After all, God is God. God is King, with a God-given right to rule and to dish out punishments and blessings to those He deems deserve them.
Perceiving the Image
To see God as both of these – as a Father and as a King at the same time - is not all that easy. To some degree they are contradictory. The Father image is the kind and loving guy who would do anything for his little darlings. The King image is the all-powerful monarch who rules with an iron fist and doesn’t take any chutzpa from anybody. How do they fit together?
Both are necessary. One without the other misses something. The Father without the King is just too tempting to treat without adequate respect. It is a little bit too familiar. The King without the Father is too distant. There is no point in bothering since there is no way to get an audience. Put the two together and we have an image that can be perceived. God is familiar like a family member, but also distant and austere like a King. There is a tension between the two that keeps the image fluctuating back and forth from distant to familiar. This really is what God is on the very personal level of prayer. We want God to be right there, but we know that such a state of consciousness is extremely difficult to maintain. Sometimes we do relate to God in a close and familiar way. But sometimes we relate to God in a distant and austere way. The two images are really one. God floats back and forth, which is really the state of mind that prayer seeks.
This image of God responds to the strength of the human will. This image is not really perceivable by those who aren’t going to give it their all. We may deceive ourselves that God is really just waiting to bend over backwards to doing anything we want, but it’s really nothing more than a mirage. The image of the Father and the King needs to see resolve, to see solid willpower, in order to manifest. There is a reason for this. This is an image that is both very personal and very impersonal. It is kind of like a combination of Elohim and Hashem rolled into one image. It’s not easy to maintain that combination, as anybody who has tried can testify. It takes strength of will. It takes an attitude of, ‘I am not leaving this circle until I get it’. It even takes a bit of chutzpa towards oneself – making an outrageous demand on one’s own mind. It demands of the mind that it perceive God as right there, waiting for us to voice our needs, but also sternly watching from the distance as we shake in our boots. Is this not a pretty accurate description of genuine prayer?
Even sincere daveners have a hard time escaping the feeling that prayer really doesn’t work. How does one navigate this maze of conflicting spiritual emotions? Is chutzpa the only answer?
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