Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 30 October 2021 / 24 Cheshvan 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 5)

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 second blessing continues: “Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah; attach our hearts to Your commandments…”

The plea to “enlighten our eyes” is actually one of the most beautiful requests that can be found in our prayers. Understanding Torah and creating fresh and new ideas within Torah is not reserved for only the most brilliant to discover. When we ask G-d to “enlighten our eyes,” we are acknowledging that the ability to formulate novel concepts rests with how we delve into the Torah. It is not necessarily a “Mensa-level” IQ that brings forth innovative understanding and thought-provoking insights. Rather, it is purity of spirit and a genuine desire to understand G-d’s Torah that allows new concepts to be revealed.

From where does the enlightenment that we are requesting originate? King David writes in Tehillim (111:10), “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d.” King Solomon, echoing his father’s words (Proverbs 1:7) writes, “The fear of G-d is the beginning of wisdom.” Rashi explains that it is the fear of G-d that serves as the catalyst for engrossing oneself in the study of Torah. Or, as the brilliant French Torah scholar Rabbi Menachem ben Solomon Meiri (1249-1310) describes: fear of G-d is the foundation of a person’s knowledge and spiritual growth. And just as a building must have solid foundations to ensure that the building will not collapse, so too each person in their spiritual being must have foundations that are strong and sturdy to enable them to withstand the vicissitudes of life. In the timeless Ethics of the Fathers (3:9), our Sages teach us that when a scholar gives priority to fearing G-d over the pursuit of wisdom, his wisdom will endure. The fear of G-d is so intrinsic to a person’s spiritual growth, as the Talmud relates (Shabbat 31b) that Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar were once sitting together when their colleague, Rabbi Yaakov ben Acha, walked past them. One of them turned to the other and suggested they honor Rabbi Yaakov ben Acha by standing up for him because of his pronounced fear of sin. The other one suggested that they stand up because he was an extraordinarily brilliant Torah scholar. On hearing this, his friend wondered with bewilderment why there was any need to mention how great a Torah scholar Rabbi Yaakov ben Acha was. After having made it clear that he was an extremely righteous person, it was obvious that his fear of sin was far more significant than his prodigious Torah knowledge (see Rashi).

Fascinatingly enough, we first ask G-d to enlighten our eyes and only after that do we request that He fill our hearts with love for Him. It seems counterintuitive to request insights into the Torah and only after that to ask that we be filled with love for G-d. However, the Rabbis explain that the Torah is actually the fastest and most direct route to loving G-d. It is through in-depth study of Torah that we are able to experience an overwhelming love for G-d that supersedes everything. The Chazon Ish famously described the various stages of learning Torah uninterruptedly for ten hours starting from the sixth hour. According to the Chazon Ish, after seven hours of learning one feels a closeness and love for G-d that has not been felt up until now and the person fills up with a true joy that wells up from inside of them!

After having asked for insights into Torah and love for G-d, we then ask Him to “attach our hearts to Your commandments.” The inference of our request is that being enthusiastic and eager to fulfill the mitzvahs is not always easy. Even when we perform the mitzvahs on a regular and consistent basis, we need Divine assistance to help us feel verve and passion each time anew. Rabbi Shimon Schwab told of the one Shabbat he spent in the presence of the saintly Chofetz Chaim. The Torah portion read that Shabbat was Beshalach (Shemot chapters 14-17), which contains the description of the first time the Jewish nation received the manna, the food they would eat for the forty years in the wilderness. The Chofetz Chaim pointed out to the Yeshiva students who were gathered around his Shabbat table that the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 25) relates that, with a few exceptions, the manna would have the taste of whatever food the person eating thought about. The Chofetz Chaim then asked all those present what taste the manna would have if the person didn’t think about a particular food, just eating the manna as is. The students debated back and forth, offering different possibilities based on different descriptions of the manna found in the Torah. Finally, the Chofetz Chaim told them that the manna was a spiritual food, and, like all spiritual concepts, if a person does not think about it, it is tasteless. Then he added, with great passion, that there is nothing sweeter than delving into a page of Talmud — but that if a person does not think about what they are learning, that same page of Talmud becomes dry and “tasteless.”

To be continued…

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