Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 21 August 2021 / 13 Elul 5781

The Blessings of the Shema: Introduction

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched
– they must be felt with the heart.
(Helen Keller)

The Mishna (Tractate Brachot 11a) teaches that three blessings should be recited together with the Shema in the morning. Two are said before the recitation of the Shema and one is said afterwards. The Maharal writes (Netivot Olam) that Hashem employs three different “operating systems” to control the world. The first is via the laws of nature, following the ostensibly natural cycle of the world. The second is through the intellect, which can transcend the natural system. The third is through miracles that eclipse the natural order entirely. These three systems correspond to the three blessings of the Shema.

  • The first blessing: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G‑d, King of the Universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all” corresponds to the natural system.
  • The second blessing, which begins with the words, “With an abundant love” and ends with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who chooses His people Israel with love” is referring to the Torah and corresponds to the intellect.
  • The last blessing, which is said after the recitation of the Shema, ends with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who redeemed Israel,” and it corresponds to the supernatural existence that encapsulates the history of the Jewish Nation.

Fascinatingly enough, the three blessings are also compared to the three main utensils that were found in the Holy section of the Temple: The Golden Table with its twelve loaves of bread, the Menorah, and the Golden Altar that the incense was offered on. The first blessing — speaking of light and darkness — corresponds to the Golden Table, which represents the physical dimensions of this world. The Menorah represents the wisdom and the insight that the Torah brings into the world, corresponding to the second blessing and the intellect that it symbolizes. And the third blessing — which is recited after we have reached the sublime moment when we accept upon ourselves Hashem’s Majesty — is analogous to the Golden Altar and the exquisite fragrance that it emits. A fragrance described as being comparable to the smell of the Garden of Eden.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the exceptionally brilliant eighteenth-century Kabbalist and philosopher universally known as the Ramchal (an acronym of his name), writes that the first blessing before the Shema emphasizes the physical continuity of the world. The second blessing focuses on its spiritual continuity. And, after having recited the Shema, the third blessing partially defines for us Hashem’s supreme powers

It is not by chance, therefore, that our Sages chose to begin the blessings of the Shema with one of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism: light and darkness both emanate from the One Divine Source. Our Sages teach that light is always synonymous with clarity and wisdom, with goodness and truth. Light symbolizes an open and recognizable relationship with Hashem. Darkness, on the other hand, represents the opposite. Darkness is symbolic of ambiguity, of a lack of clarity that can cause despair and even a feeling of hopelessness. It is symbolic of an almost complete inability to discern Hashem within the evil that surrounds us. Yet, the blessing testifies that both light and darkness are created by Hashem. Our blessing categorically states that we do not believe that there are two disparate powers of good and evil constantly clashing with each other. Rather, everything is sourced from the One above.

Before we are able to begin contemplating Hashem’s absolute sovereignty by reciting the Shema, we must first acknowledge that everything in this world is His. We should not make the mistake of imagining that what we perceive as being evil is an independent power that has no connection to the Absolute Source of all.

And this is where our journey into the blessings of the Shema begins. With the very first lesson that our Sages are teaching, that we owe our entire existence — what we perceive as the good, the not-so-good and also the bad — all to Hashem.

To be continued…

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