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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Avinu Malkeinu, Yom Kippur 5776


Unlike places like Egypt, lands like Israel rely heavily on rain for food. Because of this, our Rabbis instituted a series of fasts and extra prayers for seasons when rains came late. This seems to be one of the crucial times for needing prayer to work. Everything relies on God’s mercy. Therefore, the best prayer leaders were put in front of the community. The Talmud tells us a story of two situations where the great Rebbi Eliezer, son of Hurkanus, tried to lead the community in prayer during fasts declared for rain, but God does not respond. While he fails, two other sources succeed. One of those seems to be our first recorded use of the prayer אבינו מלכנו [our Father, our King].
תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף כה עמוד ב
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 25b
Our Rabbis Taught: an occurrence with Rebbi Eliezer, who decreed thirteen fasts on the community, but rain did not fall. In the end the community began to disperse. He said to them, “Will you decree graves on yourselves?” The entire nation broke out in crying and rain fell.
תנו רבנן מעשה ברבי אליעזר שגזר שלש עשרה תעניות על הצבור ולא ירדו גשמים. באחרונה התחילו הצבור לצאת. אמר להם: תקנתם קברים לעצמכם? געו כל העם בבכיה, וירדו גשמים.
Another occurrence with Rebbi Eliezer: that he descended before the ark and said twenty-four blessings and was not answered. Rebbi Akiva came after him and said, “Our Father, our King [אבינו מלכנו], we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake have compassion on us.” And rain fell.
שוב מעשה ברבי אליעזר שירד לפני התיבה ואמר עשרים וארבע ברכות ולא נענה. ירד רבי עקיבא אחריו, ואמר: אבינו מלכנו אין לנו מלך אלא אתה. אבינו מלכנו למענך רחם עלינו, וירדו גשמים.
Our Rabbis began murmuring [against Rebbi Eliezer]. A heavenly voice rang out and said, “Not because this one is greater than this one. Rather, this one went beyond his merits and this one did not go beyond his merits.”
הוו מרנני רבנן. יצתה בת קול ואמרה: לא מפני שזה גדול מזה, אלא שזה מעביר על מידותיו, וזה אינו מעביר על מדותיו.

In the first story, it seems like the crying of the people makes the rain fall. This is not surprising since the Talmud tells us that crying can open the gates to God.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף נט עמוד א
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, 59a
Said Rebbi Elazar, “From the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were locked, as it says, ‘Though I cry and plea, He closes up my prayer,’ (Lamentations 3:8).”
אמר רבי אלעזר: מיום שנחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפילה, שנאמר "גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפילתי." (איכה ג:ח)
But even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not locked, as it says, “Hear my prayer, Hashem, and hearken to my cry; to my tears do not be silent,” (Psalms 39:13).
ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו שערי דמעות לא ננעלו, שנאמר "שמעה תפלתי ה' ושועתי האזינה אל דמעתי אל תחרש."

But what about Rebbi Akiva? What makes his prayer more acceptable than Rebbi Eliezer’s? Is it the words “אבינו מלכנו?” Is it some quality he posses? The Talmud only gives us the cryptic message of the Heavenly voice which tells us about going beyond one’s merits. The Daf al HaDaf offers an interpretation I found interesting and compelling.

דף על הדף תענית דף כה עמוד ב
Daf al HaDaf, Ta’anit 25b
David Abraham Mendelbaum, et al, 20th Century Israel
Behold, Rebbi Eliezer was the son of Hurkanus, who was also a Torah scholar and a great of his generation. For sure he gave his son a holy soul and pure body. Therefore, Rebbi Eliezer did not need to work on himself to improve the merits.
והנה רבי אליעזר, שהיה בנו של הורקנוס, שהיה ג"כ ת"ח ומגדולי הדור, ודאי המשיך לבנו נשמה קדושה וגוף טהור, ולפיכך רבי אליעזר לא היה צריך לעבוד על עצמו לשיפור המדות.
In contrast to him is Rebbi Akiva who was the son of converts and a commoner originally. He needed work and great struggle to improve his merits. And this is what the Gemara is saying, “Not because this one is greater… rather that this one went beyond his merits.”
לעומתו, ר' עקיבא שהיה בן גרים ועם הארץ מתחילתו, הוא היה צריך עבודה ויגיעה רבה לשפר מידותיו, וזהו שאומרת הגמ' "לא מפני שזה גדול וכו' אלא שזה מעביר על מדותיו".

May we all merit to go beyond our merits and have our prayers answered this Yom Kippur.

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