Just a few short days ago, Jewish communities were standing together during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Though each of our communities is different in denomination, in location, in style and in tone, we are bound together by our shared history, liturgy and legacy. Each in our own way, we stand before the open ark singing the words of Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King.
The prayer is striking in its raw humility, with musical settings that starkly relay the vulnerability of our people as we realize that we are powerless in predicting the year ahead. Seeking guidance, forgiveness and redemption Avinu Malkeinu is earnest in its petition. God takes on two roles here: Avinu — God who is like a father, protective, loving and stern. Also, Malkeinu — God who is like a king, majestic, heroic and discerning. The use of metaphors describing God with poignant imagery helps us access the prayer in a visual, visceral way.
However, there are times when the metaphors feel limiting. God may be like a father and like a king. But certainly, God is not only that. This week, in parshat Ha’azinu, as Moses sings his final words to the Israelite people, he extensively uses metaphor to illustrate the depths of their holy, covenantal relationship with God. HaTzur, The Rock, Moses calls God — bringing to mind a deity that is long-lasting and unchanging. A few verses later, Moses recalls another image: k’nesher, like an eagle, who bore the Israelites on broadly spread wings, carrying them to safety like an eagle carries its young. Quite different from the hard, cold, steadfast rock, the heart of the eagle beats as it carries its nestlings swiftly out of danger’s way.
Parshat Ha’azinu also describes God as a father, reminding the Israelites that it was God who created them, who formed them. However, Ha’azinu also uses maternal imagery to describe God’s relationship with humanity. Moses compares God to a nursing mother and a woman in labor. God is like the parents who brought us into this world.
Torah shares each of these descriptors with us in quick succession: rock, eagle, father, mother. Each one is insufficient on its own, describing only one dimension of a God who is beyond description.
The Reform machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, complements the traditional Avinu Malkeinu prayer with an alternative reading that explores the many metaphors we might use to describe God. The reading considers loving father, infinite power, compassionate mother, omnipotent Lord. Presence, mystery, rock, redeemer … the reading goes on to say, “None of these are true, None of these are You. Yet we stand as those before have stood, summoned to judgment, longing for love. Avinu, Malkeinu. May these words be a bridge. They come from our hearts. May they lead us to You.”
Not long ago, we stood as Moses stood, facing an unknown future. The High Holy Day liturgy coaches us in acknowledging our own mortality, questioning the threshold between life and death as we wait for the gates to close behind us. Moses, in his final moments of living, articulates the complexity of living in relationship with a God who defies understanding. God breaks open metaphors and exists beyond physical understanding. God is both like a protective father and a compassionate mother, a steadfast rock and a soaring eagle. In exploring each metaphor, only one thing is certain: God is like all of these things, and yet nothing is like God. As we step bravely into the unknown of 5779, we roll Torah back to the beginning and delve even more deeply into relationship with God and one another. JN
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.