Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 6 November 2021 / 2 Kislev 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 6)

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: “And unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name, and may we not feel shame for eternity.”

G-d’s love for us and our love for G-d are the central theme of the second blessing before the Shema. Mutual love is so fundamental that the saintly Chofetz Chaim, in his commentary on the command to love G-d, avers that even if a person were to repeat the words “You should love the Lord, your G-d” over and over again, it would not be enough unless they cause their heart to love G-d! For this reason the Chofetz Chaim gives a homiletic twist to the understanding of the phrase “and unify our hearts to love [You]” by explaining that we are asking G-d that our hearts be filled with only one overwhelming feeling of love for Him. That there should be no room for any other kind of love or desire that might lead us to forbidden actions. Rather, we should be filled with a pure and unadulterated love for G-d.

Rabbi Raphael HaKohen was the Chief Rabbi of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbeck in the eighteenth century. Aside from being the revered mentor of the Jewish communities under his jurisdiction, he was also held in the highest esteem by the monarchy of Denmark. He authored several books that displayed his erudition and his mastery over the Written and the Oral Torah. In his classic Marpeh Lashon, Rabbi Raphael HaKohen writes that very often there is a marked difference between how we behave and how we think. He writes that the Torah first commands us to fear G-d and only afterward comes the command to love Him. This is the most effective way of approaching our service of G-d. We begin by serving G-d out of fear – fear of the punishment we might receive if we do not serve Him correctly. But, as we grow closer to G-d, and as our knowledge of G-d’s existence matures, we begin to serve Him out of love. Subsequently, love of G-d is the higher level of serving G-d, but without the healthy foundation of fear of G-d it is almost impossible to reach. If so, asks Rabbi Raphael HaKohen: “Why does our blessing mention first love and only afterward fear? Surely, it should follow the Torah’s sequence, and fear should precede love!” He answers that our prayers are an expression of our aspirations, because our prayers reflect our thoughts and what is in our hearts. Therefore, we first ask that our hearts be filled with love for G-d, because that is our focus and our ultimate ambition.

Perhaps this is why our blessing uses the Hebrew word “b’libeinu,” which actually means “hearts” in the plural. It as if we are being told that we have two hearts — one heart that loves G-d and another heart that fears G-d. Some may fear G-d but not love Him, and others may love G-d but not fear Him. Our goal is to unify our “two hearts” as one to serve G-d in the most complete way possible. However, because love and fear are contradictory emotions, we must entreat G-d to assist us in unifying the two together.

And this clarifies why the verse ends with the words, “and may we not be shamed for eternity.” Rabbi Shimon Schwab explains that “eternity” is a reference to the World to Come. If we live our lives in a way that reflects the intensity of our relationship with G-d, after leaving this world and ascending to the spiritual realms we will have nothing to be ashamed of. We will be able to attest to the fact that we tried our best to live lives that comprised both fear of G-d and love of G-d.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000), the Chassidic Rebbe of Slonim (more commonly referred to as the Netivot Shalom, the name of the series of brilliant Torah thoughts he published) pointed out to his students that our Sages teach that the Giving of the Torah was not a one-time event that took place over three thousand years ago at Mount Sinai. Rather, the Torah is always accessible and waiting to be given to us anew. “At which moment does the ‘Receiving of the Torah’ take place?” he asked them. One student answered that it happens at dawn on the Festival of Shavuot. A second student suggested that it happens when the Ten Commandments are read during the Shavuot Torah reading. A third student had a different theory, and so on, with each student coming up with yet another possibility. After everyone had tried to find the solution, the Rebbe answered his own question, telling them, “Each person receives the Torah when they are ready to accept the yoke of Torah!”

To be continued…

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