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Avinu Malkeinu: A Prayer-Inspired Essay on Parenthood

Parented by G-d, and Parenting G-d’s Children

One of the most challenging, if unoriginal, theological struggles for me personally has always been the tension between the idea of a loving G-d and suffering of the innocent. The analogy we were taught as Yeshiva kids was based on the verse in Deuteronomy:

“For as a father afflicts his child, so G-d afflicts you.”

We were told that the same way a small child can’t understand why a parent might force a child to undergo painful, life-saving medical treatment for her own benefit, likewise, we mere mortals can’t understand why a loving, compassionate G-d would allow the innocent to suffer. Even as a child, this analogy raised immediate and obvious resistance for me (and I’m sure I’m not unique in this):

“I know that if my parents had a way to offer me said medical treatment without pain, they would. But they’re limited, while G-d is Omnipotent. If He can do anything, why wouldn’t He create painless solutions? Why even have the problems in the first place?” Ostensibly back to square one.

The common assertion that without pain we wouldn’t have free will or value pleasure rang hollow; even sadistic. (Although if that satisfies you, then don’t let me ruin it for you.) Free will could still exist along a continuum ranging from passivity to achievement, and pleasure could just as easily be savored and contrasted with the baseline absence of pleasure.

Yet the original parent analogy circles back to the substance of the parable itself:

“The child, in her limited conception of reality, imagines her parent to be omnipotent, and therefore maliciously choosing to administer gratuitously painful treatment. She thinks she has the whole picture and is being needlessly targeted and victimized. Likewise, if we are still in the infantile state of human spiritual consciousness, we lack the philosophical capacity to grasp why a loving parent/ G-d would ‘opt’ to inflict pain, and so we’d experience it as senseless cruelty.” And so the metaphor-rebuttal continues concentrically, like so many Russian dolls.

If we are to accept this relinquish-to-authority-based-on-our-ignorance approach, perhaps we could achieve surrender, acceptance, even some form of serenity. But where would love enter the picture?

“Our father, our king, we’ve sinned before you.”

If I had to go to trial, I imagine I would be inclined to plead innocent. Or at least only as guilty as strategically advised by a lawyer. But that’s a dispassionate human court of law.

If I got myself in trouble personally and needed support, I would go to my parents and say:

“I messed up.”

Because even though I know they’d be disappointed, and I would hate that, I also know that their love would drive them to help me.

I hope and believe my own children feel the same way.

If there weren’t at least a twinge of discomfort, of guilt with the admission, that might mean we hadn’t done our parental jobs of conveying morality and developing conscience.

And if they were too scared to approach us at all, that might mean we hadn’t done our parental jobs of offering love and relational security.

Even on the most intense days of the year, the Days of Awe, we rise in synagogue and commence this seasonal, heartfelt prayer with the humble, raw, honest words:

“Daddy, my King- I messed up.”

I can take responsibility for my mistakes with the confidence that you will still hold me. In fact, this is not just a once or twice a year admission. Multiple times in the daily prayer services throughout the year, we have similar confessional formulation:

“Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned, pardon us our King, for we’ve transgressed, as you are exceedingly forgiving!”

Every day. This is not a provisionary prayer, contingent on the possibility of our transgressing. It’s canonized because mistakes are inevitable. Loving parents know this. They don’t pretend their kids are or will be perfect. They set them up with tools for repair. And lots of patience, and realistic expectations.

A healthy, loving marriage is not one with no conflict. It’s one where the love overrides the hurt over the long haul, and the hurt gets addressed with empathy and accountability.

Recently, a friend confided that she feels so aggravated with her teenage daughter. This kid does the same infuriating things almost daily, and even apologizes, and shows remorse, but then repeats them. (I did not reply: “Wow, that’s exactly what we adults do to G-d,” because that would have been super-insensitive, but I did think it.)

I remember over 20 years ago, when my oldest was just a toddler, we went outside one gloomy day. He scrunched up his face, looked up at me and asked: “Mommy, could you please make the rain stop?” In his innocence and limited perspective, he genuinely believed his parents controlled everything.

In our own innocence, we similarly turn to our Omnipotent Daddy in this prayer and ask:

“Our Father, our King, nullify all the bad decrees, our enemies’ thoughts, and plans! Make the bad guys shup up and go away! Get rid of all the illness, violence, hunger, captivity! Oh, and make like we didn’t do anything wrong- erase, in Your Compassion, all our iniquities, and also our debt!”

Is this some sort of magical thinking?

A collective childish fantasy?

A tantrummy laundry list of demands?

How many times will we utter these wistful words and then go forth again into a writhing, broken world in which little has changed?

How is this helpful?


Magical thinking and outlandish fantasy are, in a way, the seeds of what changes the world. It’s what brought us electricity and airplanes and democracy and brain surgery and the internet and peace treaties. It’s how we discover subatomic particles and Novas and music and love and pizza. It’s what breaks Olympic records and inspires Nobel Prize-worthy innovation. It’s what will eventually cure cancer and bring about world peace and end poverty, with G-d’s help.

With unlimited imagination, idealism, activism, creativity, hope, and faith, last century’s science fiction becomes our children’s middle school science project.

Last millennium’s tragedies can become the next one’s celebrations.

“The actionable outcome begins with a thought,” – the L’cha Dodi Friday night prayer.

Prayer in English means “request.” But Tefila, its Hebrew, reflexive equivalent, proffers a richer, more layered etymology; ramifying into at least seven different meanings.

Tefila encompasses introspection, meditation, grappling, transcendence, gratitude, song of praise, and conceiving of the ostensibly impossible. Teflia is a form of spiritual journaling. It’s cultivating a personal relationship with the Divine, with the Uni-multi-verse, the Diversity that is Life, and the Oneness that is Existence. It invites, challenges our often-fragmented mind/body/heart/soul selves, to integrate in a cacophony of philosophical-somatic-emotional-spiritual core self-expression. By first decompartmentalizing our own parts, we then emanate outward from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal and beyond.

“Our Father, our King,” we continue our liturgical sacred rant, “heal the sick! Bring all kinds of salvation and redemption, and money, and sustenance, and bounty! Do all the good things- for us, for our children- do it for You!”

Years ago, our young daughter was suddenly hospitalized. She was suffering and rapidly deteriorating, but no one could figure out what was wrong with her. My husband and I tag-teamed for several days running on adrenaline and fear, flying between the other kids, work, and the hospital. Until my parents showed up. I collapsed on their shoulders and sobbed like a baby. My brain knew that they had no medical expertise, no practical recourse, but my heart instinctively and irrationally needed to believe their soothing presence and comforting embrace would “make it all better.” My father held me protectively and allowed my trauma to convulse in his arms. As it turned out, my mom had brought homemade potato kugel, which was the bizarre turning point at which my baby girl perked up, ate heartily, and just as mysteriously as she taken ill, began to quickly regain her strength and appetite. She was discharged within hours.

(I generally hesitate to share “miracle stories” for fear of sounding irrational or insensitive to the too-common realities that don’t result in similarly “happy endings.” But we hear so frequently and quickly of horrific tragedies from our negatively biased media and minds, that perhaps we need to balance out the scales of human drama with true stories of hope too. Not all crises resolve with a hug and homemade Shabbos food, but sometimes the love they represent can mitigate the agony, even temporarily.)

I hope my children feel this super-rational safety from me. That even when I can’t or believe I shouldn’t come through for them the way they want me to, that I am their emotional refuge, their safe space, their embrace. That if they want to, they know they can confess their deepest shames and fears to me, and I will hold space for their imperfect, intrinsic goodness. That they express their wishes to me, for anything at all- even the ridiculous. That they can dream out loud to me, even in the most grandiose ways, and I will not only not laugh at them, but I will listen and take pride in their aspirations. That I would do whatever I can, to support them in trying to actualize their potential greatness.

Avinu, Malkeinu: our Father, our King.

The Hebrew word for king (Melech) is differentiated from the word for ruler (moshel) in that the word for king/ melech denotes the subjects choosing to serve their leader, whereas ruler/ moshel means one who takes power by might or subjugation. G-d knows that the only hope we have of being able to access our autonomy and devote ourselves to His service is if prior to being “our King” He is “our Father.” When we feel His love, His devotion, our organic connection to and oneness with Him, that engenders the choice to crown Him as our King. We can’t control our children’s choices, but if we establish ourselves first as a resource of love, nurture, and empowerment, they are far more likely to avail themselves of our wisdom and influence.

“Our Father, our King, don’t leave us empty before you! Have compassion upon us, our babies, our children!”

Our desperation is not only not disrespectful; it’s sanctified. We can beg and whine and cry and rail because He won’t lose patience with us. He wants this connection.

Even when there’s nothing specific I can do to help my child through a challenge, I want them to feel they can come to me, to cry, to protest, to wish away the pain, to be held. And I in turn, lift my eyes to Him and similarly beg my Father shamelessly on their behalf.

I know I might not get what I want, what I think I need, but if I do, this would be the Source. And if I don’t, I can’t say I didn’t try, and I’m tapping into the relationship regardless.

“Our Father, our King,” we conclude dramatically, “grace us, answer us, we have no actions! Do lovingkindness and charity with us and save us!”

We have the confidence, the temerity, to demand all this, without merit.

Please. As a favor. Just because.

That’s exactly what parental love is. Unconditional love between most humans is actually not that healthy; in most adult relationships, love should be developed, cultivated, and maintained.

But the love of a parent for a child is unconditional.

My children will never need to earn my love, to prove their worth to me, to win my heart.

Whether they fully grasp it or not, they are my world, my priceless babies, now and forever.

And we are His.

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