Our Father, Our King, Avinu Malkeinu.
When I was a student at Bar Ilan University in Israel, I attended a lecture titled, “Is portraying God as King helpful today?” The professor answered in the negative, asking how many kings actually still rule today. He then went on to present more “relevant” models such as Our Father, our President or Our Father, our Prime Minister.
While I strongly disagreed with my professor’s dismissal of the Kingship model — believing that we should embrace and find meaning in our traditional liturgical themes — I appreciated his willingness to explore different ways to connect to the Days of Awe.
In this light, I would like to offer experiencing God during this season not only as parent (Our Father) or sovereign power (Our King), but also, in the spirit of the Song of Songs, as partner.
In the month of Elul, Am Yisrael is courted by God. The word Elul אלול is an acronym for a verse in the Song of Songs (6, 3): אני לדודי ודודי לי I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me. During these days, we draw close to God, our Beloved, and take positive steps (i.e., teshuva) toward cultivating the relationship. This courtship ultimately leads to the nation’s betrothal to God on Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah corresponds to the first stage of Jewish marriage: Kiddushin. In Talmudic times, Kiddushin transpired up to a year prior to the second stage, Nissuin.
Despite our celebrating the stages together in modern ceremonies, each retains its unique character. Through the act of Kiddushin, we exclude ourselves from everyone else aside from our spouse. This is central to Rosh Hashanah, where we remove ourselves from all distractions, using the shofar as a wake-up call, and rededicate ourselves to God. This is comparable to what is at times recited in a civil ceremony: “Keeping yourself solely unto him/her for as long as you both shall live.”
Yom Kippur embodies the second stage, Nissuin. In Nissuin, we do not only distance ourselves from other connections but actively embrace our Beloved, entering into a lifelong loving commitment. This provides another way to approach fasting on Yom Kippur: we are in such a unitive state with God, that we resemble the angels who do not eat or drink. Some people wear white on Yom Kippur: maybe these can be seen as wedding garments?
After the Jewish marriage, the couple moves into their new home. During the first seven days, it is customary for the couple to host a new guest every day (panim hadashot). This is the Sheva Brachot. A resemblance can be marked here between these seven days and the seven days of Sukkot.
On this holiday, we enter into our new home with Hashem: the Sukkah! This residence is non-permanent, to symbolize that our marriage has just commenced.
We also have guests visit us for seven days in our new Sukkah home, traditionally known as Ushpizin — a new one each day (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.). Sukkot is the nation’s honeymoon with God. We sing, celebrate. This is the Time of Our Rejoicing Zman Simchateinu.
As Sukkot concludes, we transition into Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. On these days, we exit the Sukkah and enter into our permanent abodes, marking the conclusion of our honeymoon and the beginning of our new lives together.
As the holidays enter, it’s important to experience God both as king (Malkeinu) and parent (Avinu). This is the bread and butter of our synagogue experience.
But we must also not forget that our Beloved is for us דודי לי. May we merit achieving this balance between awe and connection, fear and love, and take steps forward toward actively being for our Beloved אני לדודי.
Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev serves Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation.