אבינו מלכנו, החזירנו בתשובה שלמה לפניך
Our Father, our King, return us to You in perfect repentance.
Avinu Malkeinu is one of our most prominent and most passionately and powerfully recited tefilos in these days of Aseres Y’mei T’shuvah. In fact, the same is true during the very last moments of N’ilah, which is the climax of Yom Kippur and the 40 days of awe and unique closeness to Hashem.
In almost every shul in which I have davened, the chazan and responders seem most passionate about the ending of the phrases rather than the words “Avinu Malkeinu.” Perhaps we should place at least as much passion into the beginning of each line. I have heard stories and parables that all end with someone being petrified of a major court case as they walk into the courtroom. When the judge makes his appearance, they breathe a huge sigh of relief when they see that the judge is their father.
Although the judgment of every aspect of our lives and that of our loved ones is being sealed on Yom Kippur, the Judge is our loving Father. He chose us as His nation and He loves us more than we can imagine. He is also Malkeinu – the King of all kings. He is All-Powerful and All-Capable. Nothing is out of His abilities.
Regardless of which line of Avinu Malkeinu we are currently saying, what we are asking for is in the hands of our loving, All-Powerful Father. That is something we should feel passionately about and internalize. This bitachon, as we say the two words “Avinu Malkeinu,” will also be a tremendous z’chus for Hashem to grant whatever request is made at the end of the line.
A second consistency I have noticed is that the second responsively recited phrase – “שלח רפואה שלמה–Sh’lach r’fuah sh’leimah… (Send complete recovery…)” – is belted out at a much higher decibel level than the others, and especially much louder than the one before it, “החזירנו–Hachazireinu…”
Without in any way detracting from the heartfelt pleas for those who are ill, perhaps t’shuvah, which is what we are focused on for these ten days (and should be focused on every day), should get the same fervor and passion.
What are we really asking for? Isn’t t’shuvah up to us? How can we even ask Hashem to return us? What is t’shuvah “sh’leimah”?
There are many answers to this, but we would like to focus on one in particular. In these days, there is a heightened focus on seeking and obtaining forgiveness from those we have hurt or harmed in any way. Often, there are people who we do not realize were hurt by us. There have been incidents where people’s feelings have not come out for years. For all those years, they live with the hurt and say nothing. Perhaps one understanding of our phrase is that Hashem should help us by enlightening us when we sit down to think about from whom we need to ask forgiveness. There can be no complete t’shuvah without forgiveness from each person whom we hurt or harmed. We must put forth great effort to think about whom we hurt. However, we need Hashem’s help, as we always do. We need Him to open our eyes to someone we have not thought about.
Lastly, let us remember the origin of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. The Gemara in Taanis (25b) relates that during a famine, Rabbi Eliezer, the gadol ha’dor, prayed the longest tefilah of 24 brachos for rain. No rain fell. Then Rabbi Akiva, his student, prayed a very short tefilah (two of the Avinu Malkeinu phrases) and it started raining. A heavenly voice announced: It is not because Rabbi Akiva is greater, but rather simply because Rabbi Akiva was “maavir al midosav.”
HaRav Yisrael Salant explains: There was absolutely nothing wrong with the way Rabbi Eliezer conducted himself. He was exacting. Right was right and wrong was wrong – that was his path of serving Hashem. Since the Jewish people at that time did not deserve rain, and since Rabbi Eliezer was exacting in judging others, he could not bring about the rain. On a judgment level, the people did not deserve the rain at that time.
However, since Rabbi Akiva was not exacting with others and, even when he was 100 percent correct, he nonetheless stepped aside in favor of others and forgave others – even when they were 100 percent wrong – he was able to bring the rain, even though it was not deserved.
The rewards of being “maavir al midos” are no less than overturning decrees, as we see in the above incident, and extending life when death was the true judgment, as seen in another incident related in the Gemara Rosh HaShanah. As the saying goes, “They don’t pay the big bucks for nothing.” It is very difficult to overlook hurt and to forgive others, especially if they haven’t apologized or they apologized half-heartedly.
Ultimately, we are in control of the method of judgment applied to us. Will we be judged exactingly, or will we be judged with the compassion and “above-and-beyond” measure we apply to others? It is all in our hands.
May we all merit a g’mar chasimah tovah and a complete m’chilah, s’lichah, and kaparah this Yom Kippur.