Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 28 January 2023 / 6 Shevat 5783

The Amidah (Part 34): The Final Paragraph: Personally Speaking

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“Prayer is not a miracle. It is a tool, man’s paintbrush in the art of life. Prayer is man’s weapon to defend himself in the struggle of life. It is a reality. A fact of life.” (Rabbi Avrahom Chaim Feuer)

“My Hashem, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Open my heart to Your Torah, then my soul will pursue Your commandments. As for all those who design evil against me, speedily nullify their counsel and disrupt their design. Act for Your Name’s sake, act for Your right hand’s sake, act for Your sanctity’s sake, act for Your Torah’s sake. That Your beloved may be given rest, let Your right hand save and respond to me. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer. He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel. And let us say: Amen.”

The final paragraph continues, “Act for Your Name’s sake; act for Your right hand’s sake; act for Your sanctity’s sake; act for Your Torah’s sake.” There is a subtle change in the order of the prayer between Sephardim and Chassidim, on one hand, and Ashkenazim on the other. According to Sephardim and Chassidim, the text reads, “Act for Your Name’s sake; act for Your right hand’s sake; act for Your Torah’s sake; act for Your sanctity’s sake.” “Your sanctity” and “Your Torah” are swapped around, and the sentence ends with “Your sanctity,” which is preceded by “Your Torah.” The reason for this difference revolves around the somewhat esoteric concept of the Ten Sefirot, which Kabbalistic texts teach to be the ten powers that Hashem uses to serve as the connection between the Spiritual Realms and the physical realms. Torah is connected to the Sefira of Tiferet – beauty – and sanctity is connected to Gevurah – strength or judgment. There are two opinions among Kabbalists regarding which of these two represents the culmination of our spiritual aspirations. According to Sephardim and Chassidim, it is correct to end with Gevurah since it represents the awesome Divine power that is found in this world. Whereas Ashkenazim end with Tiferet, which represents the balance of both Hashem’s strict justice and His attribute of mercy in this world.

It is easy to overlook the difference since it is so slight, but, in a certain way, it helps to define the different approaches to serving Hashem that are found between Sephardim and Chassidim on one side, and Ashkenazim on the other. In general, the Sephardic approach to Avodat Hashem is very much centered through the emotions. Sephardic prayer is warm and inclusive, with the congregation reciting every word together in a melodious chant. It resonates with a communal awe and love for Hashem. The Sephardic method of prayer was adopted by the Chassidim and is an intrinsic dimension of their Avodat Hashem as well. The pinnacle of the recitation of the Amidah is the realization that we are doing everything in honor of Hashem’s sanctity. And this is the reason it appears as the final clause in the prayer. We are working our way upwards in the pursuit of the ultimate spiritual goal, which is to recognize Hashem’s complete and absolute Majesty in our world. Ultimately, it is Hashem’s attribute of Gevurah that is the purest measure of our connection to Him. Alternatively, the Ashkenazic approach to Avodat Hashem tends to be less outwardly demonstrative. Like the Sephardic approach, Ashkenazic prayer is also structured and meticulous, but its focus is more on the inner dimension of prayer without expressing itself in an obviously external fashion. In general terms, the Ashkenazic approach is that the Torah is the pinnacle of our spiritual aspirations. The Torah represents everything that we aspire towards. For this reason, in the Ashkenazic version it appears as the last of the four concepts in the list because it is the most essential requirement in connecting to Hashem.

Which is the correct approach? They are both absolutely correct! The Ba’alei Mussar use a cup of coffee (of all things…) to explain. When one makes a cup of coffee, the first thing a person does is to boil the water. Yet, no one drinks the coffee when it is that hot. They wait for the water to cool off before drinking it. But, if they need the water to cool off, why do they need the water to reach boiling point? Surely, it would make more sense to make the coffee as soon as the water reaches the desired temperature for drinking! Of course, as everyone knows, if the water has not been boiled first, the coffee won’t taste right. The Ba’alei Mussar teach that in a similar fashion, our Avodat Hashem needs to begin with passion. It should be “boiling,” meaning full of enthusiasm. It is true that the intensity may cool off a little with time, but since it began with such an incredible sense of excitement and fervor, the incredible “taste” remains forever. We are all different and we all need different approaches to our Avodat Hashem. Sometimes, a person needs to incorporate a palpable warmth and passion so that they feel the connection being built with Hashem. And, on other occasions, a less emotional and more analytical approach might be required to help the person understand intellectually what their obligations are towards Hashem.

I once heard an enchanting story. An American living in a religious Israeli neighborhood in Yerushalayim came into his local Shul one day, expecting to join his regular Minyan. He was surprised to find everyone there passionately reciting Tehillim with great urgency. Worried about what might have occurred, he asked one of the locals why they were saying Tehillim. The Israeli looked up and told him in Hebrew, “Because there was a tsunami in Texas.” Then, the Israeli paused reflectively and added, “I don’t actually know what a tsunami is and I am not quite sure that I know what Texas is either — but when a Jew is in danger we recite Tehillim!”

The Tur (122:2) cites a Midrash (Sefer HaManhig, Hilchot Chol 62), which teaches in the name of Shmuel that “Anyone who hurries to say these four descriptions will merit to receive the Shechina.” Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that our Sages are teaching that a person who sincerely feels that they are unworthy of having their prayers answered by Hashem – a person who honestly feels that the only reason that Hashem should react to their entreaties is solely for His own sake – such a person can be described as being a true Yireh Hashem.

It is fascinating to note that the gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word “lema’an,” which means “sake,” is one hundred and ninety. This is exactly the same gematria as the word “ketz” – redemption. The Rabbis teach that the connection between lema’an and ketz is that the only way we will merit redemption is by acknowledging our complete and absolute subservience to Hashem.

To be continued…

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