This past year, however, I kept getting called back to the basics. Over the year, as I spoke with people and taught various classes, it seemed that while everybody is confident in being Jewish, not everyone is confident in depth of knowledge. It’s as though we all have a little shmear of Judaism in our lives. It adds some flavor but we only know the surface. We’re eating the cream cheese. We’ve got no bagel. So this year, I want to give you a bagel. But not just any bagel. Not those fluffy 500 calories offenses found in a supermarkets or -shudder- Pepperidge Farm. I’m talking about a bagel bagel. The dough is allowed to ferment overnight, it’s boiled and then baked, it’s reasonable in size, it is almost crusty on the outside and soft on the inside and it tastes like Hester Street. Frankly, so few of us have had a proper bagel we hardly would know it if we found one. But a real bagel is rich and engaging with a bit of tang and something that can carry you through the day. It connects you to your heritage and it transports you for a moment as you crunch through the top and enter into the mysteries of the center.
Our Father is always more giving and forgiving to God’s children when we are nice, when we are kind, when we do what we should do. Be immature, act cruelly, flout reasonable rules and God has to punish. I will be disinclined to do what YOU want, says God, when you show no interest in doing what I need.our father-avinu- also tends to be more amenable when we behave better.
And if you do right then malkeinu will do right by you even beyond customary kingly protection.Total authority.
"Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [to conduct the service on a public fast day] and recited twenty-four blessings [of the prayer for rain] and was not answered. Rabbi Akiva went [before the ark] after him and said, 'Our Father, our King - we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King - for Your sake have compassion for us!' It then started raining.
"The rabbis started speaking unfavorably [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, 'Not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than this one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one ma’avir midotav and this one does not ma’avir midotav.'" (Ta'anit 25b)
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva offer dueling blessings to get God to give rain. Eliezer is ignored. Akiva’s prayers cause the rain. The people naturally think Eliezer doesn’t have the stuff and they start talking him down but God’s voice corrects them. It’s not that Rabbi Eliezer is bad. It’s just that Rabbi Akiva is so good and what makes him good is that he ma’avir midotav. And what does that mean? It’s translated as having “forbearance” or “being humble” but it means more.
Ma’avir means to pass as in take a pass on, skip over. A midah is a measure, a quantity, characteristic, a dimension, an attribute. What did Akiva do that was so great? He skipped over a characteristic, an attribute he has. And what was that attribute? It seems that Eliezer was very strict in his understand of Jewish law. He demanded strict compliance. Akiva was more easy going. He was humble in that he didn’t assume he was absolutely, positively correct and that humility allowed him to be reasonable in his rulings. He had forbearance in that he could tolerate things done right if just less strict. Of course, Akiva knew how to be strict. Maybe he even wanted to be strict. Maybe he wanted to run around and yell at people and be full of himself and throw his weight around. He was the great Akiva after all. Maybe deep down inside, Akiva was an egomaniac. But he passed on that characteristic. He let it go.
Sometimes someone does something to you and you just want to answer with a sharp retort, you want to attack back. Maybe you have an attribute that really is a part of you but it’s not the best attribute. Having negative qualities isn’t a sin. It’s acting on them that gets you in trouble. But if you can ma’avir al midotav, if you can let it go, fail to indulge the negative, take a pass on responding with mean-spiritedness, that makes you a great person. That makes you worthy of being emulated.
Avinu Malkeinu evolved from a story about a rabbi who was listened to because he was able to tamp down his less than stellar ways. Rosh Hashana is a day not to ask God to forgive you just because. Rosh Hashana is a day to start asking God to forgive you because you can show that you are taking a pass on the poorer characteristics you, me, we all have. You know what you do that isn’t good. You know when passion gets the better of you. You know when you lose it. If you can get a handle on that, if you can take a pass on it and choose a better way, that is something God pays attention to. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about working on being better than you were last year. Turn the negative into a positive.
But wait there’s more. The Chasidic rabbis amplified this attitude with their own story on the story.
A story is told of a certain chasid who each year would give his rebbe a portion of his income, and each year his business prospered. Once he came to see the rebbe and found that he had left. He heard that the rebbe had gone to meet with his own mentor, the Chozeh of Lublin. The chasid was startled to hear that his rebbe has his own rebbe. He therefore decided that rather than giving a portion of his earnings to his rebbe, the Chozeh's student, he would transfer the funds directly to the Chozeh himself. After all, as his rebbe's rebbe, wasn't the Chozeh more worthy?
From that point on, the chasid's earnings began to dwindle as his business deteriorated. He went to the Chozeh of Lublin and asked why this happened, to which the Chozeh responded, "So long as you weren't so fussy about whom you donated the money to, God wasn't so fussy about whether or not you deserved your earnings. The moment you started carefully considering to whom you would prefer to give, then the Almighty likewise began carefully examining if there are others more deserving of the money than you."
An amazing story because, OMG, it’s a story by chasids that suggests a Jew shouldn’t be too uptight about things --- but that’s a different sermon.
For our purposes, the story teaches this: Avinu Malkeinu, we ask for this and this and this and this. Please, understand that we aren’t perfect, we make mistakes. Can’t You just give us a little slack? And God is saying, my children, my subjects, you are rude and uptight and strict and intense with your own friends and family. You are so short tempered with other human beings just like you! You know how hard it is to be perfect and yet tear down your fellow human beings at any chance when they don’t live up to a standard you yourself can’t attain. You gossip and judge people just like you. I’ll tell you what, God says, you start going easy on your own friends and family, and I’ll start to go easy on you. You judge less harshly with them, I will judge less harshly with you. Avinu Malkeinu can be a chance to show God how we have taken a pass on the less flattering characteristics we all have. It is a chance to say: See how I have lightened up with those I care for? See how I don’t judge as much? See how I am turning crabbiness into niceness, turning a short temper into patience, turning the bad into the good? So you, God, please do the same for us. Accept our prayers, forgive us. Follow our lead, God. As we don’t judge, please You don’t judge. Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our king, we are learning to be good. Won’t you be good in return? One prayer. Three approaches. That’s some bagel. A As we add the melodic shmear, we’ll ponder the complexity of going before our father or a king. We’ll acknowledge our participation in the list of sins and work to remove them from our selves by next year and we implore God to go easy on us since we are trying so hard. A good and thoughtful new year to us all.