Rabbi Suzie Jacobson’s Yom Kippur 5783 Sermon: Avinu Malkeinu: God of Life, God of Love, God of Change

Avinu Malkeinu: God of Life, God of Love, God of Change

by Rabbi Suzie Jacobson
Yom Kippur 5783

In the 2nd century of the common era, if you had an issue with the weather, you brought it to your rabbi.

This past July it rained little more than half an inch, but no one made an appointment with me for spiritual intervention.

In the 2nd century, a drought meant failed crops, hunger, and possible starvation. In our modern world, a drought means dry suburban lawns, failed kitchen gardens and news articles about worried apple farmers.

In the 2nd century, there was a drought and it was a serious enough spiritual issue that it changed the course of Jewish prayer.

The Mishnah (1) teaches that when drought came, Rabbi Eliezer instituted a cycle of 13 fasts, a spiritual prescription for all Jews in the land of Israel. But rain did not fall. At the end of the last fast, the congregation began to exit the synagogue, defeated. Rabbi Eliezer thundered, “Have you prepared graves for yourself?!” Admonished, the people broke out into a chorus of wailing. Tears falling down their faces, onto their clothing, the floor, each other. The people, drowning in tears, were shocked out of their lament — lightning crackled outside — the rains had arrived.

But the rain was short lived — drought came to the land again. The people once again crammed into their synagogue, waiting with bated breath for Rabbi Eliezer to save them once more. Eliezer rose before them. He stood at the ark and recited twenty-four blessings — but nothing happened — his long and serious prayers went totally unanswered. The holy space grew silent as the revered leader returned to his seat among the community.

From the silence, another figure arose. Rabbi Akiva took his turn before the holy ark. With eyes closed, and a clear, soft voice, Rabbi Akiva prayed,

״אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה.

“Our Father, Our King — We have no King but You.”

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ, לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ״

“Our Father, Our King — For your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately, the rains began to fall.

History has debated the meaning in this mythology — Was it the simplicity and spontaneity of the prayer? One simple prayer as opposed to 24 intricate ones? Was it Akiva’s persistent loyalty to the One God? Was it his appeal for mercy in the face of grave danger?

Or perhaps, he just got God’s name correct.
Avinu Malkeinu — our Father, our King.”

From the Mishnaic story, this phrase evolved to form a bedrock of high holiday prayer —

We begin with this plea — “Avinu Malkeinu, hear our voices, Avinu Malkeinu, we have sinned before you” —

And we end with the much loved folk chorus —

Avinu Malkeinu — Our Father, our King — answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love.”

Today, we do not gather in the sanctuary to ward off threat caused by drought. But Jewish history and tradition have compelled us to gather on the high holidays prepared to wrestle with our own mortality, with the anxiety of living with sentience but not foresight — We have no idea what the future has in store — save us! Pardon us! We will live meaningful lives!

But where are we directing all this spiritual energy and existential angst when we pray Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King?

As my teacher Rabbi Art Green points out in his recent book, Judaism for the World, “The combining of these two titles, the parental, with all its loving intimacy, and the royal, filled with awesome pomp, tells us a great deal about the sort of piety Judaism seeks to create.” (2)

Kingship is a metaphor of “distance and authority.” In his parable “An Imperial Message” (3) Franz Kafka tells the story of an Emperor attempting to send a deathbed message to a “humble subject.” The subject is described as, “the insignificant shadow cowering in the remotest distance before the imperial sun.” It’s impossible for Kafka’s Emperor to reach his humble subject in life, he can only reach him via his dreams. The God King is utterly transcendent. So totally inaccessible to his subjects, they cannot reach him, and he is not able to reach them even when he tries.

Meanwhile, the parent metaphor is the exact opposite — the ultimate definition of intimacy — This is the “Tatte, Daddy God ” of the Chasidic Rebbe. Joy and sorrow brings us closer to our Divine parent. This is the Talmud declaring all of Israel “B’nei malachim hem” (4) — Even though God is King, we are the children of royalty.

Avinu, we are the children of the immanent, personal God — Malkeinu — we are the insignificant subjects of an incomprehensibly transcendent force.

Avinu — We yearn for true connection, moral purpose, the discovery that our life has meaning. Malkeinu — We are in awe of the awesome power of life, we seek to explore the many mysteries of our universe.

What a wonderfully paradoxical dyad! Avinu, we are beloved. Malkeinu, we are insignificant, but dust and ashes.

Rabbi Akiva’s 2nd century spontaneous cry still holds so much relevance — but the personified God language leaves many of us, myself included, uneasy.

The language of Avinu Malkeinu, The God who is Father and King is just so “old man in the sky.” Fathers can love us or abandon us, support us or judge us. Our fathers inevitably die. And don’t get me started on the monarchy — If we are going to idealize and make Divine a familiar form of power, we could choose a more democratic and accessible metaphor.

Our Torah and prayers are filled with metaphors for God. Contradicting metaphors, mixed metaphors, downright strange metaphors. In her essay on the wide array of metaphors in Deuteronomy 32, Rabbi Andrea Weiss (5)  of Hebrew Union College directs our attention to such diverse metaphors for God as father, eyelid, eagle, nursing mother, and protective rock. Rabbi Weiss believes that “we need multiple metaphors, in the Bible and in our own lives, because no single comparison can encapsulate all there is to say about God and the complexity of the divine-human connection.”

Literarily this makes sense — but in practice, I fear that all metaphors have a limited shelf life — they only work for us when they feel culturally relevant. If Rabbi Akiva had called out for mercy from “The Great Eyelid in the Sky,” his prayer might not have made the canon. If we refer to God with only masculine pronouns or insist on describing a tyrannical King, our religion would not be consistent with our moral values.

In Cynthia’s Ozick’s brilliant essay “Metaphor and Memory,” (6) she teaches that “Metaphor relies on what has been experienced before; it transforms the strange into the familiar.” But what do we do when once familiar metaphors become strange? What do we do when our God language just makes God all the more distant and anachronistic?

And of course there is the elephant in the room — Many of you may have heard me say the word God, told yourself that such a thing is nothing more than a human created story, and settled in for a mid-service nap.

To you I say — stick with me, because you aren’t wrong. Everything we have and will say about God is a human story — we are incapable of moving beyond the limitations of our brains and language. If God really is something beyond what we are and what we know, then sure, agnosticism is reasonable. God is impossible to prove. No one said discovering the secrets of the universe would be easy!

And for others among you, you are waiting for me to describe God the way you do, to use the right analogies. And that is equally impossible, though I invite you to send an email or join my theology class and tell me exactly what you believe. The Jewish people have been blessed with a tradition that has always been theologically flexible and diverse. When Jacob was renamed “Yisrael” (7) — the God wrestler, and we became b’nai Yisrael, the children of God wrestlers, it was a true nomen omen — our fate was sealed in our name. There is no one, solid Jewish definition of the Divine — though we all seem to agree with the Deuteronomists’ claim that whatever God is, God is one.

To intensify this conversation, we have to admit that in the 21st century, God has a PR problem. A specific, fundamentalist vision of God is used cross-culturally to justify war, violence, hatred, and most recently, a very specific image of God is being used to control the bodies and lives of every person with a uterus. This is dangerous. This is not our God.

Who is this God that we’ve been praying to for thousands of years? And why do our metaphors — Father, King, mountain, eyelid — always fail us?

Part of our issue is that our stories transform God into a being — with a personality, a perspective, someone who makes mistakes. And our personified metaphors fail under scrutiny — Is it the doting Father or the deadbeat dad? The benevolent monarch or the tyrannical despot?

What if we start with what we know?

Matter is neither created nor destroyed.

All life is interconnected — We live in a symbiotic relationship with the trees, the bees, the microscopic bacteria in our bodies. When a person gets sick with a novel virus halfway around the world, we all spend three years in a global pandemic.

As Baruch Spinoza taught almost four hundred years ago, the ultimate goal of all living things is to persevere and survive. We survive because we are interconnected.

This unified force of life flows through everything and everyone — to me, this is God — A personal life force that animates us and will someday return to God — Avinu. An Eternal life force with awesome transcendent power that permeates space and time — Malkeinu.

This force is not morally neutral. As we individually persevere, we are filled with an unseen emotional energy that drives us to take care of one another, to understand right from wrong, to recognize personal responsibility. We call this justice and love, and this is God. We teach our children and support our friends — Avinu. We fight for systems that are equitable and join
together to imagine a better world — Malkeinu.

And as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches in his book God of Becoming and Relations (8), this force of life and love is not static, but always changing. In every moment, all things change — with every breath or decision or blowing of the wind, our world and our selves are constantly moved and renewed. This too is God. Personal change — Avinu, Global transformation — Malkeinu.

God is life. God is love. God is change. Personal, intimate, transcendent and awesome. Avinu Malkeinu.

Our understanding of God is just the first step in our spiritual lives. In Judaism, there is no such thing as being “spiritual but not religious,” or “spiritual but nonpracticing.” We move immediately from our understanding of the world and God, towards a system of communal rituals that help draw our attention to the holiness that surrounds us.

Henry James once wrote (9), “Be one of those upon whom nothing is lost.” We bless our food, we bless our children, we bless the rainbow. When we lie down and when we rise up. The Talmud (10) teaches that we should say 100 blessings everyday. It is no coincidence that we refer to practicing Judaism as “observing” the mitzvot. Jewish ritual is a daily mindfulness practice of living purposefully and observantly in every moment. Judaism is not meant to go unnoticed.

In her essay, “The Riddle of the Ordinary,” (11) Cynthia Ozick teaches “The Jew has this in common with the artist: he means nothing to be lost on him, he brings all his mind and sense to bear on noticing the Ordinary, he is equally alert to Image and Experience, nothing that passes before him is taken for granted, everything is exalted.”

Everything is exalted. In that quotation, Ozick quite purposefully capitalizes the words “Ordinary,” “Image” and “Experience.” We don’t need to visit God’s shrine or Temple or mountain. God lives in the ordinary, in every experience, every observation.

But knowing this is not enough.

Our rabbinic ancestors gifted us with a detailed playbook to help us navigate life’s moments, big and small through ritual All too often Reform Jews think they are “nonobservant,” “not religious.” But if you ritually named your babies, bless the challah, light chanukah candles, attend a Passover seder, expect to be buried according to Jewish traditions — you are engaging with powerful observances, and in doing so, you are finding ways to deepen your vision of your life and this amazing world.

But like the literal meaning of “Avinu Malkeinu,” Father, King, some metaphors and translations have not weathered the test of time. What was once comforting is now strange. What was once familiar is now alien. We need new words, new spiritual practices, new ways of celebrating and blessing the ordinary and the extraordinary.

At Temple Israel we have an initiative called the Spiritual Practice Lab. We teach classes and hold retreats and prayer services geared towards expanding our prayer lives and allowing us to experimentally explore the many pathways towards nurturing our inner lives. We’re here, we are already religious, so let’s design a Judaism for the 21st century together. Let’s discover the words and practices that allow us to observe this world and celebrate our lives.

If Akiva were to stand up on our bima this morning — what would he pray for? An end to violence? A solution for climate change? For peace and love to rule the human heart?

And what would he say? What words would he use?

Would he say Avinu Malkeinu? Would he say intimate God? Transcendent God? What would he mean by these words?

I’m no Rabbi Akiva, but here is my offering:

God of life. God of love. God of change.
Inspire us to open our eyes and our hearts to the wonder and possibility of
this world. Help us realize that even when we fail or falter, there is always
hope. We are surrounded by community, and as long as we are alive, we
have the power to change. May we each realize that we have the
opportunity to make this new year, a good year. And next year, may we
return to this same place, surrounded by friends, ready to connect to You.


  1. Mishnah Taanit 25b
  2. Green, A. (2020). Judaism for the world: Reflections on God, Life, and Love. Yale University Press.
  3. Franz Kafka “The Imperial Message”
  4. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 67a
  5. Rabbi Andrea Weiss, “The Multiple Metaphors for God in Shirat Haazinu”
  6. Ozick, C. (1989). Metaphor & Memory: Essays. Knopf.
  7. Genesis 32:29
  8. Artson, B. S. (2016). God of becoming and relationship: The dynamic nature of process theology.
    Jewish Lights Publishing.
  9. Henry James. “The Art of Fiction.” Published in Longman’s Magazine 4 (September 1884).
  10. Talmud Bavli Menachot 43b
  11. Ozick, Cynthia. (2017). Art and ardor. Atlantic Books.