Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 06 August 2022 / 9 Av 5782

The Amidah (Part 20): Blessing for the Acceptance of our Prayers

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 sixteenth blessing reads: “Hear our voice, our Hashem, pity and be compassionate to us, and accept with compassion and favor our prayer, for You are Hashem, Who hears prayers and supplications. From before Yourself, our King, do not turn us away empty handed, for You hear the prayer of Your people Israel with compassion. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who hears prayers.”

The intent of our blessing somewhat differs from the preceding blessings. Up until now, each blessing has been for a specific need, but our blessing is less defined. Interestingly, despite its more general structure, it is considered to be an extremely potent blessing. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 119:1) writes that in the blessing of “Shema Koleinu” one can ask for anything. As Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz writes about our blessing (Ya’arot Devash), nothing is too inconsequential to ask for. The only condition is that the person must ask with sincerity. He then continues, “If a person prays sincerely, Hashem will listen and the person will benefit. That is not the case if the words are said by rote.”

Our blessing opens with the plea, “Hear our voice.” Rabbi Reuven Melamed (1912-1985) was a member of the faculty of the illustrious Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak for younger students from its inception. He was considered one of the closest disciples of the legendary Mashgiach Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein. Among his scholarly works, all of which were published after his passing, is one entitled Tefillat Chana, with his insights on the prayers. He writes that, after having asked Hashem for so many different things — wisdom, health, wealth, atonement and redemption — we now ask Hashem to hear our prayers. We have said the words and now we must beseech Hashem to listen to our requests. Rabbi Avraham Kramer (1722-1804) was the brother of the Vilna Gaon and an extraordinary Torah scholar in his own right. In his commentary on the prayers, he explains that the phrase “Hear our voice — Shema koleinu” refers to the words that come out of our mouths. It does not refer to the depth and meaning of the words we say. When we ask Hashem to “hear our voice,” we are asking Him to do so even if we are lacking in merits, and even if the words we recite are missing in intent. And even if we are completely undeserving and there are no expectations that Hashem is obligated to listen to our prayers, we nevertheless beg Him that to show us compassion and listen to us anyway.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab has the most beautiful explanation for the phrase, “From before Yourself, our King, do not turn us away empty handed.” There are many occasions when we pray, and yet Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, chooses not to grant our requests. Therefore, we entreat Hashem that even if His answer is no we will not be sent away “empty handed,” feeling as if we have been rejected by Him. Rather, we should feel uplifted and inspired that we merited being able to communicate with our Father in Heaven and that He listened to our prayers even though He did not fulfill our wishes.

In his commentary on the Torah (Parshat Shoftim), the Chatam Sofer introduces an innovative concept. He writes that when a person manages to pray the Amidah with the correct concentration and intent, not only does his Amidah soar up to the Heavens, but all his previous prayers that were not recited properly join together with his Amidah to make their way up to the Spiritual Realms. The Chatam Sofer then explains how it is possible that prayers that have been previously rejected due to their lack of intent are now able to gain access to the highest levels. Praying with concentration and intent is such a sublime experience that it fills the person with the most enormous sense of delight. This feeling is so satisfying that the person is overcome with remorse for all the times he prayed without focusing on what he was saying. Those feelings of regret, of having neglected the many opportunities in the past to pray with such sweetness, are his repentance. It is a repentance that emanates from an overwhelming love for Hashem, and which, as the Rabbis teach, has the power to turn a person’s sins into mitzvahs. The Chatam Sofer concludes with the words, “It is now clear, that after reciting one prayer properly, the previous prayers that were recited without the correct intent can rise up to the Holy One and be accepted!”

It is evident that prayers recited sincerely, with concentration and intent, have the most enormous impact in the Spiritual Realms. Therefore, our Rabbis teach that heartfelt prayers are never turned away. This concept was underlined during an especially poignant dialogue that took place between Yehuda Wachsman and a secular Israeli journalist. In October 1994, Nachshon Wachsman spent a Shabbat at home, on leave from the Israeli army. After Shabbat, on his way back to his base, he was kidnapped by terrorists affiliated to the Hamas movement. The entire country — both religious and not-yet-religious — was galvanized into reciting Tehillim for Nachshon’s wellbeing. He was held hostage for six days until an elite unit of the IDF tried unsuccessfully to rescue him. Caught in a murderous crossfire, Nachshon was killed in the attempt to free him. The soldiers who had been a part of the rescue operation told Nachshon’s father, Yehuda, that, according to all the odds, not one of them should have survived. At the Shivah, the journalist spoke with Yehuda Wachsman. One of the questions he asked the mourning father was how it was possible that the thousands upon thousands of Tehillim that were said, with such incredible intensity, could have all been for naught. Nachshon’s father answered that every single one of those prayers recited, with the utmost purity, were said to save a Jewish child. And that they were answered. It was just that the child was not his son.

To be continued…

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