Avinu Malkeinu and Charlottesville

Today marks the beginning of the High Holy Days season, and one of the keynote prayers of that season is the “Avinu Malkeinu,” the series of petitions that begin with the refrain “Our father, our King.” The first person our tradition records invoking this formula in prayer is the great Rabbi Akiva, back in the second century, but its roots actually go back to this morning’s Torah portion, in which Moses tells the Israelites “Banim atem laHashem Elokeikhem – you are children to the Lord, your God.” Moses continues, “ki am kadosh ata, laHashem Elokekha – for you are a sacred nation, to the Lord your God.” You are children – Avinu, God is our Father. You are a nation – Malkeinu, God is our King.

The relationship between these two identifications has always been fraught. In some ways, they are a study in contrast. One is an individual description – each of us is, separately, a child of God. The other is a collective description – we are, together, a holy nation, but nobody can be a nation alone. And it goes beyond that. Emphasizing the description of banim, of being God’s children, reminds us that, really, every human being is created in God’s image. It speaks to something universal. However, the description of am kadosh, of being God’s sacred nation, says something unique about the Jewish people. It speaks to something particular.

The debate, for example, around Israel’s recently-passed nation-state bill, which emphasizes the Jewish character of the state but may undermine the democratic status of non-Jewish citizens or the equal status of languages other than Hebrew is, at least on some level, a question of the push and pull between banim, being children, and am, being a nation. In contemporary terms, the question is whether Israel is more or less integrated into the global world, or more or less a Jewish ethno-state, in the style of the many such leaders and movements that have been on the rise over the past several years.

However, these two terms do not just contrast each other, but also complement each other. Here’s one example. The identity of am with or without the accompanying identity of banim may be the difference between what George Orwell described, way back in the 1940s, as the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Orwell explained that patriotism is about pride in one’s way of life, but nationalism is about the power to impose that way of life upon others. Patriotism is innately defensive, and strives for peace, but nationalism is innately aggressive, and provokes conflict. Patriotism is an expression of confidence, but nationalism is, at least beneath the surface, an expression of fear and alarm.

Put into contemporary terms, nationalism is the Unite the Right march a year ago today in Charlottesville, and tomorrow, again, in Washington, D.C. Nationalism are crowds of people marching with torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Nationalism is the terrorist who drove his car into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer. Nationalism are gunmen who threatened a synagogue with terrified worshipers inside.

In Orwell’s own words, “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” In the terms of this morning’s Torah portion, nationalism is the am without banim. It is a loyalty to national aspirations and values, while ignoring the individuals of whom those nations are actually comprised. Moses tells the Israelites, yes, you are a nation, but you are also individuals, who in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, have a responsibility not just to create a strong state, but also a strong society. Three thousand years ago, Moses challenged us to be patriots, not nationalists.

These two terms also move in progression, from one to the other. In a sermon delivered over 60 years ago, Rabbi Norman Lamm noted that the summer weeks are focused on our Jewish experience as an am, as a nation. We observe the three weeks of national mourning together that culminate with Tisha B’Av, commemorating the tragedies that befell us as a nation. We are currently, as the Haftorahman reminds us, in the seven weeks of consolation, when we find hope in national, collective aspirations for the future. But, at the same time, the High Holy Days season begins to appear, reminding us that our sense of being part of the Jewish people should also inspire each of us, as individuals to become better Jews. And we do that not by looking beyond ourselves but into ourselves. We come to the High Holy Days season after encountering God as a sovereign, but we end it encountering God as a parent.

From a national perspective, things seem to be faltering and collapsing around us – anti-semitism escalates across Europe, neo-nazis boldly march in America, the Western alliances that for decades gave us a sense of security and confidence begin to fray. The season tells us, though, to shift our perspective inwards. We may not be able to fully repair the world around us, but the first step is repairing ourselves. And the first step on that journey is understanding that Avinu Malkeinu, that we are not alone.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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