It sounds like a classic nightmare. I wake up late and rush to class, only to find that we have an exam for which I had totally forgotten to study. With sweat running down my neck, in a state of sheer panic, I look down at the sheet of paper on my desk not knowing a single answer…
Unfortunately, this was not a dream, and in fact, reality during my senior year of college in a Medieval Philosophy class. And so, bereft of options, like so many of my ancestors before me, I began to pray, “Dear God, if you could just help me pass this test, I promise to study so hard in the future and be a really good person…”
Or maybe you can relate more to this one. It’s the Super Bowl and your team is down with only a few seconds to go. The quarterback tosses a ‘hail Mary’(pun intended) and you start thinking, “God, please let the receiver catch it and score. If you could do this one little thing for me, I promise to never ask for anything ever again…”
Or maybe it’s a little more serious and someone you care about is undergoing major surgery. Sitting in the waiting room, you can’t help but lift your voice to the heavens, asking, “God, please watch over my loved one. If she comes out of surgery ok, I swear I will do anything You want…”
How many of us have done this at some point in our lives? Silently prayed to God saying, “If you could just do this or that… I promise to do x, y, or z.” Many of us, in our logical, rational minds know that prayer doesn’t exactly work this way, yet we still find ourselves bargaining with God when we have nowhere else to turn.
In an effort to understand this universal plea, the Maggid of Dubno, a hasidic teacher of the 18th century, tells a story:
Moshe, a travelling shmata salesman was at his wholesale supplier to buy the goods he needed for his business. The wholesaler instructed his workers to wait on Moshe and to bring him all that he ordered. Standing in the middle of the warehouse, Moshe bellowed all sorts of orders and requests, “I want 1,000 yards of that cloth, 2,000 yards of the blue velvet, 3,000 yards of that white silk.” On and on he went, requesting many other items.
When it came time to total up the price of the goods and to pay the bill, Moshe took the wholesaler to the side and, very embarrassed, whispered in his ear: “Listen, I can’t give you any money for this right now. Please allow me credit until I can pay you.”
Tonight, said the Maggid of Dubno, we are all Moshe. Shortly, we will recite Avinu Malkeinu. We will shout out all sorts of requests to God:
Avinu Malkeinu, show us mercy.
Avinu Malkeinu, bring healing and wholeness to the ill among us.
Avinu Malkeinu, have compassion on us and our families.
Avinu Malkeinu, renew us for a year of goodness.
We want forgiveness, health, compassion, goodness, and so much more. But when it comes down to the last verse, to pay the bill, so to speak, tradition teaches that we whisper: “Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Ase imanu tzedakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu. Almighty and Merciful – answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love.”
“Answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting;” we have no worthy deeds with which to pay You for our large order. Please God, just this once, give us this one little thing on credit. We know we don’t deserve it, but if you could just hook us up this one time, we promise we will repay you over this coming year.
Avinu Malkeinu, perhaps the most famous of High Holy Day prayers, is essentially that same little prayer that we say when we forgot to study for the test, or when our team is about to kick the game winning field goal. And our people have been praying it long before football or medieval philosophy exams existed. The Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) records the first mention of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer when the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Akiva, recited two verses each beginning “Avinu, Malkeinu,” in a prayer to end a drought. However, the two terms themselves, “Avinu” and “Malkeinu,” date back even further.
Avinu, translated as our Father, Parent, or Merciful One, and Malkeinu, translated as our King, our Ruler, or Almighty, were first used to describe God, over 500 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah. Writing in Babylon, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah coined these terms for God to put the theological consequences of exile into a relatable metaphor for his people.
Let me be clear; these names and all the other names of God that we recite in our liturgy are not meant to be taken literally. “Ein lo d’mut haguf v’eino guf, God has no body” – so no name can contain or capture God – including the name, God. Anything that we say about God is an understatement. However, each name for God describes and defines, however feebly, what we believe is at least one dimension of God’s nature.
Avinu and Malkeinu are just two of so many, many different names for God in our tradition. We call God creator, prosecutor, judge, jury, shepherd, friend, and partner, to name a few. But in the last sentence of Avinu Malkeinu, we call God our cashier.
In modern Hebrew, when asking for the check at the end of the meal, one requests the heshbon – literally, the accounting. At the High Holy Days, God the cashier tallies up our heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our souls. Tonight we call God the One who tallies up the bill and the One whom we ask to give us undeserved credit. What then do we really mean when we call God our cashier?
I think it is our way of saying that the things that we want from God ought really to be earned and that the only currency we have with which to pay for them is mitzvot, or in the words of Avinu Malkeinu, “acts of justice and love.”
But we know that in the end, our lives, and all the blessings that we receive within our lives, are favors that God gives us, not things that we have earned. Life itself, after all, is just a gift that we didn’t earn. We are born and we will die without ever being asked, and in between, we hope for health and good fortune, even though we know that for reasons we cannot fathom, bad things happen even to good people.
But no one wants to live totally as the recipient of unearned and undeserved favors. And so we call upon God the cashier to examine our souls and our deeds, our heshbon hanefesh, so that we might merit God’s grace.
It is a thin line we walk between knowing that our lives are a gift of divine grace and wishing that we could earn at least some of our blessings by our deeds. The former can lead to a sense of helplessness and passivity, in which everything we have and everything we are comes only from God’s kindness. The latter can lead to a sense of unchecked privilege and pride, to a feeling that we deserve all the blessings that we have, that we have indeed actually earned them.
The last line of Avinu Malkeinu, at least as the Maggid of Dubno explains it, is a prayer that strives to avoid both dangers. It keeps us from false pride by reminding us that we cannot ever rightfully claim to have earned all that we receive in life. But it keeps us from helplessness, by reminding us that, for the blessings we receive, we owe God and that we should promise to pay for them in the only currency that counts in the divine economy – mitzvot; “acts of justice and love.” I think Jeff Tweedy, from the band Wilco, put it best when he sang, “Our love, our love is all of God’s money.”
We owe God for the the blessings we receive and we promise tonight to pay for them in the only currency that counts in the divine economy – mitzvot. Mitzvot, the plural of mitzvah and literally translated as commandments, are the set of rules laid out by our tradition that guide us in our daily lives. They govern the way we eat, what we wear, how we treat others, and so much more. Right now, some of you might be thinking to yourself, “Wait, I always thought a mitzvah was a good deed.” Hold that thought.
Have most people here heard of Chabad? Whether you know it or not, you have most likely met a Jew that is part of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. Chabad is today one of the world’s best known Hasidic movements and is well known for its outreach. They stand on the street corners asking passersby, “Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?” in an effort to bring those already Jewish more in touch with their Judaism – work known as kiruv in Hebrew. Specifically Chabad strive to help Jews do more mitzvot. See, Chabad believes in the ‘mitzvah meter;’ the idea that the more mitzvot we do, the closer we will come to the messianic age.
Why am I telling you all this? Because, I agree with Chabad; the more mitzvot we do, the closer we will come to the messianic age. However, there is one really big, crucial difference. For Chabad, a mitzvah is a mitzvah is a mitzvah. They do not distinguish. Therefore, if you stop to put on tefillin, or to shake the lulav and etrog, or pick up candles to light for shabbat, Chabad believe that we have moved that much closer to the messianic age.
For me, and Reform Judaism, those ritual mitzvot are meaningful and if they bring you spiritual nourishment, by all means continue to pursue that path. However, our tradition focuses on the ethical and moral mitzvot; acts of justice and love, the prophetic command to love the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to leave the gleanings of our fields for the widow and the orphan. I believe the more of these mitzvot we do, the closer we will be to the messianic age. This focus on ethical mitzvot, especially during this season of t’shuvah, is perfectly summarized by the prophet Isaiah in the famous haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning:
Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast – a day worthy of the favor of Adonai? Is not this the fast I desire – to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to take the homeless poor into your home?
It is therefore not surprising that we think of mitzvot as good deeds, as our tradition has always focused on the commandments that look beyond ourselves, striving to do the work of tikkun olam – repair of the world. We say in Avinu Malkeinu, “Save us through acts of justice and love,” meaning it is through our acts of justice and love that we can all save the world.
Although we always think of mitzvot as good deeds, they are literally, “commandments.” And that is an important distinction because these ethical and moral teachings are exactly that – commandments – not a choice, but an obligation. We have a bill to pay, and we cannot declare chapter 11 and renege on our obligations.
But please, do not let this language of obligation scare you aware. As we are taught in Torah portion for Yom Kippur:
Ki hamitzvah hazot asher Anochi mitzav’cha hayom lo niflait hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi – For this mitzvah, which I command you this day, is neither beyond you nor far away. It is not in the heaven, causing you to say: “Who will go up to heaven on our behalf [and] get it for us…” And it is not across the sea, causing you to say: “Who will cross the sea on our behalf [and] get it for us…” No, this is so very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – that you can surely do it.
These mitzvot, these obligations, good deeds, acts of justice and love, all of God’s money, the divine currency, they are so very near. They are in our mouths, in our hearts, and in our very community. Situated for almost 150 years on North Broad St, our congregation has a unique role to play in the social justice fabric of Philadelphia. And there are so many opportunities to ‘pay the cashier’ at Rodeph Shalom this year.
Many of you are already in involved; like those who volunteered this summer with Breaking Break on Broad, a new initiative providing educational activities and meals to underserved neighborhood children. For those still looking to get involved, consider some of our other mitzvah opportunities like:
- Working with HIAS to support refugee families
- Advocating with POWER, our interfaith community organizing coalition, for more equitable public education in Pennsylvania
- Cooking and serving meals on Sunday mornings at the Bethesda Broad Shelter
- Tutoring with our MENTOR program at local schools
You can find information about these and many other ways to get involved on our website under the ‘Social Justice’ tab.
In case you were wondering, that Medieval Philosophy test – I failed it. God did not answer my prayers, per se. I made a mistake, I missed the mark and my deeds were wanting. But I ended up passing the class. Mostly because I studied extra hard for subsequent tests and made up for my mistake. I don’t know if I’d call my hard work in the class acts of justice and love, but it was my way of hoping that I could earn my reward. It was one small way of paying the cashier.
And so it is with our lives; they are a gift of divine grace and we pray that we can earn at least some of our blessings by our deeds. Avinu Malkeinu reminds us, with it’s whisper at the end, to our commitment to paying our bill in the coming year.
So as we begin our High Holy Day season and look ahead to this New Year, a New Year teeming with the possibility of blessings, let us remember to pay our tab; to pay God the cashier in the only currency that counts in the divine economy – mitzvot, our acts of justice and love.
Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Ase imanu tzedakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.
Almighty and Merciful – answer us with grace, for our deeds are wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love.