Prayer: Our Father, Our King ‎

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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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’. ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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’. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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Reflections ‎
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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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