Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
The list of supplications beginning with the words, “Our Father, our King” is a collection of various requests from God: to forgive us, to help us financially and medically, to save us from our enemies, and to change the evil decrees that hang over us. It is only natural, then, that we address “Our Father, our King” – thereby highlighting the relationship upon which base our pleas. God is our Father, and we therefore expect and hope that our Father will help us.
Against this backdrop, the opening statement – “Our Father, our King: we have sinned before You” – is most surprising, for two reasons. Firstly, there is no request here, but rather a declaration which seems out of place in the list of requests that follows it. The second question is, what is the significance of the introductory “Our Father, our King” in this statement?
In order to understand this, let us consider one of the piyyutim (liturgical poems) recited in the Selihot service, the poem “mahei umasei”:
“You make sick and You heal, You take life and You give life, You raise up from hell to eternal life. When a son sins his father strikes him; a father that has mercy heals his son’s pains. If a slave rebels his master sends him out in shackles – if the master wills it, he can break the shackles We are Your firstborn and we have sinned before You;….”
This prayer, recited at the end of the Selihot service, is a beautiful supplication that is offered after reciting the ‘vidui’ (confession). During the stage of confession, a person admits that he has sinned, and now he actually has no right to ask for pardon or for a lightening of his punishment, for he is conscious of what he has done and understands that the suffering that comes to him is a just punishment. At this point, when the person turns to God and asks for mercy, he is not asking by virtue of his own merits, but rather on the merits of the forefathers, or by virtue of God’s promise and His trait of mercy.
The above excerpt also addresses the problem of asking for mercy despite the justified punishment, and the prayer has great charm – like a hesitant child lifting his eyes to his father and whispering, “I know I was wrong, and I ask forgiveness.” The child is not arguing that he doesn’t deserve a punishment; on the contrary – we repeat “We have sinned before You”. But he claims that a merciful father must tend to and heal his child after the beating. Not to skip the beating, but to continue to love the child even after – and despite – the beating. We turn to God and say, “Despite everything in the past, when we sinned and distanced ourselves and were punished, we don’t want to forego the whole relationship. We want to continue being Your loving and beloved son despite the sin and the punishment.” This relationship is indeed characteristic of the family setting in which a rebellious son will always find his place in the bosom of the family. It is difficult for us to imagine a situation in which a “sin” would cause such a sharp break that the parents would not be prepared to accept their son back, and that even if they did not forgive him for his deeds or for the way of life that he had chosen, they could not learn to live together in renewed cooperation. The request we present before the Holy One is that, despite the clear need for punishment, it should be He, as our Father, Who will heal our wounds. That He should not cast off the connection between us and leave us to die in some distant prison. That He should remember His love for us, and – despite the sins and despite the great distance that has come between us – that He should arouse His love, break the bonds of our captivity, bring us out of our imprisonment and lead us out of our state of exile.
Likewise, in “Our Father, our King”, we start with the statement, “We have sinned before You” – but nevertheless we regard the Holy One as our Father and our King. This is not a situation of confession, but rather a request that despite our acknowledgment of sin, we want to continue the relationship of Father and son. This request is perhaps the greatest one that a person can ask, and it represents the moral basis for the rest of our list of pleas. Since we want to continue being God’s “son”, we permit ourselves to address God as our Father and to present our requests.
While we generally present this supplication on the individual level, in a year such as the one we have experienced – with so much suffering, and so many victims – we utter this cry as a congregation, with a sense of seeking the countenance of the Creator. The heaving sigh that emerges almost daily – and sometimes hourly, with each news broadcast – cries out to the Holy One to save us before our strength is gone and we are doomed to remain in the twilight zone between exile and redemption. We are far from perfect and we acknowledge our sins, but we are nevertheless His children, and we turn to our Father in heaven to save us: May the past year and its curses be finished, and may the new year commence with its blessings.