Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 26 February 2022 / 25 Adar Alef 5782

The Amidah (Part 6): Birkat Ha'avot

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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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 Avrohom Chaim Feuer)

The third blessing reads: “You are holy and Your Name is holy, and holy ones praise You every day forever. Blessed are You, G-d, the holy G-d.”

The syntax of the three opening blessings is fascinating. The first blessing defines G-d as being the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The second blessing describes, to some extent, G-d’s might. The final of the three introductory blessings of the Amidah refers to G-d’s holiness. Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Kahaneman (1886-1969) was the legendary founder of the illustrious Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and one of the most influential spiritual mentors of his generation. He points out that it may seem to be more appropriate to begin the Amidah with a declaration of G-d’s holiness rather than wait until the end of the introductory blessings. However, the Men of the Great Assembly purposely composed the Amidah with G-d’s holiness following the forefathers and a description of His might. This is to teach us that although there are certain means to try to describe G-d, there is no way for us to portray the infinite extent of G-d’s holiness. Therefore, after somewhat describing other traits, we simply pronounce that G-d is holy and His Name is holy, without any descriptive detail at all.

Fascinatingly, the derivation of the word “kadosh” in Hebrew does not really mean holy, even though it is often translated as such. Rather kadosh means “separate.” In Vayikra 19:2, G-d commands us to emulate Him through being kadosh: “Kedoshim tehiyu — you should be kedoshom.” Rashi explains that being kadosh means to separate oneself from immoral behavior. Nachmanides writes that kedusha is not only applicable to separating ourselves from immorality but is equally relevant to every dimension of our lives. Absolutely everything about us — our clothing, our speech, our deportment — is supposed to reflect the command to be kadosh. Even the days of the week reveal this concept. For example, on Friday night when we recite the Kiddush (which shares the same three-letter root as kadosh), we are sanctifying Shabbat by separating it from the rest of the week. We are turning it into a completely different day, one that bears no resemblance to the weekdays. And when G-d charges us with the mission of being kadosh, He is obliging us to live our lives in such a way that it is clear to all that we are the Chosen Nation.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter questions why G-d being kadosh should obligate us to be kadosh. He answers that we have been created in the image of G-d. (Bereishet 1:26-27) Imbued within us is our soul, which is a part of G-d. Therefore, we are already intrinsically kadosh, and “all” we need to do is to work on allowing our Divinity to shine forth. In his inimitable manner, Rabbi Salanter adds that we are being commanded to sanctify the physical. G-d is instructing us to elevate the mundane so that we can identify G-d’s Majesty within the physical world, and to leave the esoteric dimensions of holiness to G-d.

The Talmud (Erchin 24a) teaches, “Hekdesh (consecrated property) has only its place and time.” The Chofetz Chaim would explain this statement by saying that kedusha is at this time and in this place. A person should not imagine that if only he was in different circumstances, he would be more successful. Or, if it were another time, he would be able to focus on serving G-d in a more effective fashion. Rather, we must understand that wherever we find ourselves is the ideal place and time to become kadosh!

Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that the blessing concludes with the name of G-d that represents His attribute of mercy because the most compassionate act that G-d can bestow upon us is to grant us the potential to reach a level of being kadosh. Rabbi Schwab adds that the ability to tap into our inherent kedusha is always extant, regardless of how severely a person may have transgressed, because each person has been given the capacity to overcome their sinful nature and become kadosh in the Eyes of G-d.

In a charmingly sharp insight, the saintly Rabbi Yechiel Meir Lifschitz (1816-1888) from Gostynin, Poland related that as a child he absolutely refused to learn how to play chess. When he was asked why, he answered, “When I was told that it was forbidden to retract a wrong move, I realized that it was not for me. You see, I believe that repentance can undo any and every wrong move!”

To be continued…

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