I was Googling for a web-based description of the origins of Avinu Malkeinu when I came across Rabbi Micha Berger’s great discussion of the trait of ma’avir al midosav – forgiving others when we are slighted:
Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [as chazan on a fast day enacted because of a drought] and recited twenty-four berakhos and was not answered. Rabbi Aqiva went [as chazan] after him and said, “Avinu malkeinu — our Father, our King, we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King – for Your sake have compassion for us!” and it started raining. “The rabbis started speaking negatively [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, “It is not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than that one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one is ma’avir al midosav and this one is not ma’avir al midosav.” – Ta’anis 25b
Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael #28) elaborates. If being a ma’avir al midosav is so important, wouldn’t that mean that Rabbi Aqiva was greater than Rabbi Eliezer after all? Rather, there are two equally valid approaches to serving Hashem. Rabbi Aqiva, being from Beis Hillel, was ma’avir al midosav. Rabbi Eliezer was a member of Beis Shammai (Tosafos Shabbos 130b), and therefore insisted upon strict justice (Shabbos 31a). Both approaches are equally valid, and until the ruling that we are to follow Beis Hillel, both Rabbi Aqiva’s and Rabbi Eliezer’s approaches were equal paths to holiness. However, at a time when we can’t withstand the scrutiny of strict justice, it’s Rabbi Aqiva’s approach that is more appropriate.
Rabbi Akiva, the most prominent Baal Teshuva of all time, teaches us the lesson that rings in our ears throughout all of Yom Kippur – we need to favor forgiveness over demands for justice. We start Kol Nidre by offering forgiveness for all Jews (BT, FFB and Non-Frum) as we join together in a day of prayer. We end with a resounding Avinu Malkenu asking Hashem to forgive us, even though by strict justice – we don’t really deserve it.
Throughout YK, Rabbi Welcher stressed the need for understanding and unity. So, it was very appropriate and moving that during Neilah, five non-religious Jews walked into the Shul. A few who has multiple body piercings came towards my section and they were quickly given Art Scroll Machzorim. As we screamed for mercy they joined us, and nobody gave them a second look. They were Jews who had summed up the awesome courage to walk into an Orthodox Shul and join their brothers in prayer. We welcomed them with open arms.
The message of forgiveness and understanding is the message that Baalei Teshuva know all so well. One of the most recurrent themes we see here on Beyond Teshuva is that BTs often feel like they don’t fit in. We plead to our fellow Frum Jews: Please treat us with mercy. Please don’t judge us. Please don’t make us feel small. Please accept us as who we are and where we want to go.
Since we know this teaching all so well, we are well-positioned to teach it by example, as we show forgiveness and understanding to our non-frum friends and relatives, our talk-in-shul neighbors and all the Jews greater than us in Torah, Tefillah or Gemillas Chasadim. It’s hardest to live this teaching when we’re slighted and put upon, but that was the greatness of our teacher Rabbi Akiva – and that is the greatness we can each achieve as we internalize this message.
Originally published October 2006