No prayer so thoroughly captures the Jewish people’s dual relationship with God as Avinu Malkeinu, "Our Father, Our King."
The exact formulation of this prayer is based on a prayer that Rabbi Akiva (c. 50 - c. 135 C.E.), one of the greatest Talmudic sages, recited during a drought. After the community’s prayers had brought no relief, Rabbi Akiva went forward and called out to God, "Our Father, Our King, we have no king but You. Our Father, Our King, for Your sake have mercy on us!" Immediately, rain began to fall.
The prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, which is recited on Rosh Hashana* includes 44 lines, the most famous of which is the statement: "Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, even though we have no worthy deeds, act with us in righteousness and goodness and save us."
By addressing God as both "our Father" and "our King," we direct our prayers through two different avenues. From a father, one expects mercy, love and forgiveness. A father looks at his child and sees only that child, that special individual, and instinctively feels mercy for the child, a product of his own flesh and blood. That is why, on the Day of Judgment we wish to address our petitions particularly to God’s fatherly aspect of mercy.
On the other hand, a king controls the fate of his subjects. He rules with judgment and justice. Hence, we must also address our prayers to that aspect of God during Rosh Hashana and throughout the days that follow (up through and including Yom Kippur). After all, this is the time that God sits with His Books of Judgment open before Him. By referring to God as our King, we remind ourselves that while He loves us as a father, we must also be in awe of God’s greatness and majesty.
*When Rosh Hashana occurs on Shabbat, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited.
This Treat was originally posted on September 8, 2010.