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Avinu Malkaynu

by Matthew Arnold Stern

This is speech five from the advanced Toastmasters manual, “Speaking to Inform,” where I need to describe an abstract concept. It is also a commentary on the speeches I’ve heard from Christians over the years. For further thoughts about this type of speech, see “Make Your Club a Safe Zone.”

Over the past year, you have had the opportunity to hear a number of our Christian members give speeches about their religious faith. You might be wondering, “Matt, you’re Jewish. What do you think about speeches like that? Do you get offended?”

My answer is, “No! I absolutely do not get offended!” One of the things I’ve always believed in Toastmasters is that we need to speak about things that matter to us. For many people, nothing matters more than their religious faith.

Furthermore, I’ve gotten three main things out of speeches like these:

  • First, I’ve gained a greater understanding of your Christian faith. I respect the central place you’ve given Jesus in your lives, and I can see how he gives your life direction and meaning.
  • Second, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of my own Jewish faith  — something I had neglected and even abandoned for a time. As I’ve rediscovered my Judaism, I’ve come to appreciate its spiritual richness and moral strength.
  • Third, and what I will talk about tonight, I’ve come to realize that we as Jews and Christians both share something very important in common. It is Avinu Malkaynu.

You might be asking, “Isn’t it that song from The Lion King? What does that have to do with religion!?”

To explain Avinu Malkaynu, let me tell you how I came to realize that Jews and Christians have this in common.

A few months ago, I attended Peter Lowe’s Success 1998 seminar at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. Perhaps you saw the full-page ads in the paper for it: “Ten great speakers — $49.” And they were great speakers: Joan Lunden, internationally renowned motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and Christopher Reeve. There was also Bob Dole, Charlton Heston. (I can see you Republicans are salivating over this.) Considering the caliber of speakers at the conference, $49 seemed like a real bargain.

After the lunch break, Peter Lowe himself spoke. His topic was the different levels of life. In his presentation, he had a “bonus section” where talked about what he considered the highest level of life. That’s when he talked about his Christian faith. As I said, I’m not offended when people talk about Christianity with me, but he did more than just talk about it: He encouraged everyone in the audience to, as he put it, “make the same decision” he made. To help you in making that decision, he gave out these free booklets with the Gospel of John and an audiocassette tape.

Those of you who have been in this club for a while might remember a speech I gave about this matter. You’ll find it on my web site. It’s called “Don’t Proselytize Me.” (“I have a religion, thank you very much.”) As you can imagine, I wasn’t very happy about Peter Lowe pitching his religion to me, especially when I had paid him $49 for the privilege to do so.

But, then, Peter said something that caught my attention. He talked about his image of God. He used the analogy of having your father be a traffic-court judge, and you just got a speeding ticket. Of course, your father loves you, wants what’s best for you, and would never want to do anything to harm you. But, he is an officer of the court, and he must treat you impartially and according to the law. Besides, you were the one who was speeding. So, he must slap that the fine on you, even though he knows it will take a bite out of your wallet and jack up your insurance rates.

That’s when I said to myself, “Wow! We have a prayer in Judaism that expresses the exact same thing!” The prayer is Avinu Malkaynu. We say it on Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, when we ask God to forgive us for the sins we have committed during the year. The prayer has a beautiful melody (which I won’t ruin by trying to sing it). I’ll first give the prayer in the original Hebrew, and then the English translation:

  • Avinu Malkaynu, khanaynu va’anaynu ki ayn banu ma’asim. Asay imanu ts’dakah vakhesed,v’hosi’aynu.
  • Our Father, Our King (which is what Avinu Malkaynu means), be gracious unto us and answer us, for lo, we are unworthy. Deal with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.

This prayer expresses the same thing Peter Lowe did. It recognizes God as our ruler — Malkaynu — who sets the rules that we must obey or face the consequences. The prayer also appeals to God as our father — Avinu — who loves us and can grant us forgiveness.

As I thought about Peter’s speech and this prayer, I wondered how Jews and Christians came to the same conclusion about God. Even though both of our religions came from the same root, we have become two separate and different faiths.

Both our faiths agree that that the universe was created by a benevolent God. We might disagree on the details: Some of you have expressed your belief that God created the universe in six calendar days. Others, including I, believe that God created the universe over 12 billion years of evolution. However, the point of Genesis is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:1, 10 NIV).

If we believe the world is good, why are there so many things wrong with it? Why is there famine, disease, war, and poverty? Why do good people suffer, and why do evil people not only get away with murder, they make a fortune on the book and movie rights? Even worse, why do too many people of all faiths use God as an excuse for their hatred, cruelty, and violence?

As Jews and Christians, we have different beliefs about why this is and what one must do to make things right. However, we still share one thing, and that’s Avinu Malkaynu:

  • Because we believe God is Malkaynu, we believe there is an absolute set of moral laws that govern the universe. These are not arbitrary laws or unfair laws. These are not laws set by lawyers, circuit-court judges, opinion polls, or special-interest groups. These are natural laws. When we break them, there are consequences — not just “out there”, but in the here and now. When we obey them, our lives are more peaceful, richer, stronger, and yes, even happier. Even though we continue to try to understand these laws and apply them to a rapidly changing world, they form a moral code that has worked for over 4,000 years.
  • Because we believe God is Avinu, we know that in spite of our weaknesses, flaws, and limitations, we are divinely made and divinely loved. We believe in a God knows we are imperfect — who knows that even when we do our best to do good, we will fall short again and again. We believe in a God loves us, who accepts us for who we are, and who forgives us for our failings. I also think that God expects us to do the same for our fellow human beings.

Jonathan Swift once said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” I believe that the missing element is the recognition that we have more in common than we realize. When we as Jews and Christians can look past our differences and see what we hold in common, we no longer will see each other as enemies. We will see that Christians are not Nazis or Bible-thumping yahoos, and Jews are not Christ killers or “misguided souls who need to be saved.” Instead, we will see each other as partners in God’s mission to make this a more moral and humane world.

Harold Kushner expressed this belief as well. He is the congregational rabbi in Massachussets who has written a number of best-selling books, including Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People and When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. He is well respected by Jews and Christians.

He was once invited to speak at an Methodist church. One of the rabbi’s congregants heard about the talk and said to him, “Hey, Rabbi. I see you’re speaking to the competition Tuesday.” The rabbi smiled because he knew the man who joking, but he then corrected him: “No, Christianity is not the competition. Apathy and selfishness and a neo-paganism that sees Man as an animal and his every urge as legitimate — they are the competition. And the church and the synagogue are allies on the same side of that battle.”

So, let us remember as Jews and Christians that in spite of our differences in theology and even in social and political views, we are united in one thing: our faith in Avinu Malkaynu.