One of the most prominent themes of the High Holidays is our relationship with God as expressed by Avinu Malkeinu. This stirring prayer that has is origins in the Talmud makes use of a dual metaphor that informs so many of our thoughts and prayers this time of year.
Typically, the two metaphors represent different aspects of the way God relates to us and the way we relate to God. On the one hand God is our father and loves us like a father loves his children. We are God’s children and we look to God the way a child looks to a father. This is a compassionate, loving relationship that gives us comfort that no matter what
On the other hand God is our King. In this aspect of our relationship with God we find ourselves cowering in fear of God’s majesty and greatness. God is Master of the Universe. It’s God’s world and we are just guests in God’s world for a little while. This is meant to inspire reverence and respect for God.
Put together, the two sides of the God Coin illuminate our attitudes this time of year. God loves us and is our Father, but God is also our King.
There is plenty to say on this dichotomy. Perhaps we can take the usual interpretations of this dual metaphor one step deeper.
One does not choose one’s father. Fathers are imposed upon us. Everyone has a father. There is nothing particularly interesting about having a father. It’s built into the system. But most importantly, we can’t swap (biological) fathers. For better or worse, we’re stuck.
Monarchs are different. It’s true that one seems to be stuck with the king of the land where one is born. But the truth is that kings come and go. Borders change and people move. It’s a pure choice, but decided to pledge fealty to one’s king is a form of personal subjugation. It takes an act by the subject to crystallize the King and Subject relationship. If you don’t like your king you can try to mount a revolt or leave the area of jurisdiction. One day the king will die. Kings are not permanent nor are they automatic.
However, when it comes to God is there a choice? The kingship of God is not dependent on anything that we can do. It is automatic. We cannot leave God’s jurisdiction and move somewhere else to find another God. We are stuck.
That is why we also compare God to a father. While it’s true that God is like a king, the metaphor is incomplete. Comparing God to a king only goes so far. God cannot be deposed nor can one find a better or different God. That’s why we also need to compare God to a father. God is a king that is imposed upon us. We cannot trade Gods nor do we have a choice about who our God will be. In this sense, God as our father illustrates the imperative nature of God’s kingship over us.
Conversely, when we relate to God as a father we can feel stuck in a negative sense. We can wish we had a different father or we can dream about being free from the shadow of our parents. This is why we sometimes need to relate to God as our king. We voluntarily accept God as our king and as our father. This aspect of God as our king transforms our relationship with God as a father. It’s not just that we deal with God like a sometimes petulant child that would love to break free of God. We willingly subjugate ourselves in God’s kingdom even though we God is our father.
Above all else, I think this dual metaphor must inspire us to strive to be good sons and daughters to God as well as good subjects.
Sometimes we act toward God with the love and admiration of a son or daughter. Other times we need to draw on the strength of relating to God as subjects in God’s eternal kingdom. It’s not enough to think about God as our father and king. We must also think about how we are God’s children and the people who live in God’s kingdom. The metaphor can’t stop with how we think about God. The metaphor needs to affect the way we think about ourselves as well.
When we appreciate the metaphor of Avinu Malkeinu we can feel a sense of love and fear that mixes together in the perfect service of God cocktail. Drink up!
כתיבה וחתימה טובה