Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 4 December 2021 / 30 Kislev 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 10)

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 third blessing continues:“True, the G-d of the universe is our King, the Rock of Yaakov is the Shield of our salvation. From generation to generation He endures and His Name endures and His throne is well established; His sovereignty and faithfulness endure forever. His words are living and enduring, faithful and delightful forever and to all eternity. For our forefathers and for us, for our children and for our generations, and for all the generations of Your servant Israel’s offspring.”

Our blessing is pointing out one of the most fundamental tenets of all: G-d is the King of the entire universe, and not just the G-d of the Jews. He created the world and He continuously sustains the world with all who inhabit it. But, we, the Jewish People, have a unique relationship with Him. Why is this relationship being delineated now in the blessing after the Shema? Because the Shema is our declaration that G-d is our King, and that we joyfully accept His dominion over us. It is now that we are able to state with absolute conviction: In addition to His being the G-d of the universe, He is also our King, with whom we have both a national and a personal relationship. And that is why we describe G-d as being our Shield. One of the tasks of a King is to safeguard his nation and to ensure that his kingdom will endure. A shield has a dimension to it that other weapons of war do not have. A shield is passive. All a person needs to do in order to seek protection is to stand behind it, and it will defend them. Other weapons need active input to make them work. Swords must be wielded and spears must be thrown — but a shield just needs something to get behind, and it will do its job. By describing G-d as being our Shield, we are reiterating the fact that by committing ourselves to living our lives according to G-d’s Will, we will merit all-encompassing Divine protection.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida (1824-1898) was one of the foremost disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and the founder and head of the legendary Yeshiva in Kelm, Lithuania. He points out that, at first reading, the description of G-d and His Name enduring throughout all the generations seems to be somewhat cumbersome. Why is so much emphasis placed on the concept of eternity? He answers that all finite pleasures are, by definition, transient. Regardless of how much gratification we may get from them, at some point it dissipates and we move on to the next indulgence. In our blessing, the words of the Torah are described as “living and enduring, faithful and delightful forever and to all eternity” because only everlasting pleasure is truly genuine, and the only place such pleasure can be found is in the Torah.

The Torah is the font of all truth and all knowledge. In Biblical times we had the prophets to guide us and to teach us G-d’s lessons and messages. Unfortunately, since the destruction of the First Temple and its immediate aftermath, we no longer have access to their clarity and the unequivocal instruction they conveyed. Bereft of the prophets, what has remained with us is the Torah. And contained within the Torah is the absolute truth, with all its ethical lessons and principles. Ethical lessons and principles which are unchanging and eternal.

William Safire, the renowned author and journalist, once commented on why politicians no longer talk about “principles”. He remarked that, in our age, politicians talk about “values” and they do not mention principles because, “Principles are eternal truths. Values change; principles are sacrosanct. Politicians deal in values because they are expedient – they stand on a moving platform of self-interest, not a bedrock of foundation of eternal truth”.

Our Sages instruct us (Tractate Yoma 19b) to speak words of Torah and not to busy ourselves with speaking about “other” matters – subjects that are not Torah-related. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (1874-1941), one of the closest disciples of the saintly Chofetz Chaim and one of the most prominent leaders of the Ashkenazic Torah world before and during the Holocaust, asks what is wrong with speaking of non-Torah matters. He would question rhetorically, “Surely there is important information out there that is of tremendous importance and benefit to mankind. Why, then, do our Sages describe them as ‘other’ matters?”

Rabbi Wasserman then answered his own question by explaining that, just as the contemporary scientific community has entirely dismissed much of Aristotle’s scientific conclusions, so too will much of current science (in the early twentieth century) also be dismissed in generations to come. That is why our Sages label them as “other” matters, because they pale into insignificance when held in contrast to the eternal and ageless truth that is the Torah. And that is why the blessing describes the words of Torah as being alive. Because the Holy Torah is applicable to each and every single generation.

To be continued…

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