Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 18 December 2021 / 14 Tevet 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 12)

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: “You alone are the Helper of our forefathers, forever; Shield and Savior for their children after them in every generation… Praiseworthy is the person who listens to Your commandments and takes to heart Your teaching and Your word.”

Our blessing describes G-d as being the “Helper” of our forefathers. However, G-d is then described as being the “Shield and Savior” for “their children.” Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov (1783-1841), one of the most prolific Chassidic Rebbis of his generation, more commonly known as the Bnei Yissachar after his most popular work, explains the reason for the different descriptions. He says that our forefathers were completely righteous and pure, and thus G-d helped them even before they prayed to Him. We, however, “their children after them,” are not on such a lofty level, and in order to merit Divine intervention we must first call out to Him to beseech Him, and only then will He intercede. This is why G-d is described as being the “Shield and Savior” — His support comes only after we have asked for it.

The Talmud (Yevamot 42a) teaches that when the phrase “their children after them” (or similar variations found in other prayers) is mentioned, it refers to children who follow the spiritual lifestyle of their parents. However, the reference is not just for biological children. Rather, all who accept G-d’s Majesty upon themselves and live their lives according to the dictates of the Torah are included in the description of being among the children of the forefathers. For this reason the prayer continues with the words, “Praiseworthy is the person who listens to Your commandments.”

Fascinatingly, the word used here for “listen” is not in the present tense. Rather, it is “sheyishma,” which means “will listen” — in the future. According to Rabbi Shimon Schwab, the inference of the word “sheyishma” is that it is indicates a person who currently is not living their life according to the Torah but who has made a commitment to do so from now on.

What is the “word” that is mentioned in the blessing? According to Nachmanides (Vayikra 10) the term “word” is not limited to be referring to a specific statement that G-d spoke. Rather, it can also mean that G-d communicates with people through the difficulties they undergo in life. Nachmanides is introducing us to an astonishingly liberating thought. It is precisely during those darker moments that we experience G-d connecting with us in the most intimate and personal way possible. Praiseworthy is the person who recognizes G-d’s “words” at the most difficult of times. Praiseworthy is the person who can identify within their distress the “word” of G-d being transmitted to them. And praiseworthy is the person who feels G-d’s loving embrace in their times of suffering.

But there is more. Our blessing is teaching us that regardless of what a person may have done in the past, the ability to atone is always extant. G-d always awaits our repentance. The infamous Elisha ben Avuyah, who despite being one of the greatest scholars of his generation in an era that included the greatest scholars in the annals of Jewish history, shocked the Jewish nation by turning his back on his heritage and becoming an apostate. His actions were so reprehensible that he is called throughout the Talmud simply Acher (“the other one”) so as not to afford him any honor by mentioning his real name. The Talmud (Chagigah 15a) relates that on one occasion Acher heard a Bat Kol (a heavenly voice) say, “Return, wayward sons – except for Acher.” The inference seems to be that G-d will accept the repentance of everyone — with the exception of Acher. However, many Torah commentaries do no accept this inderstanding. The Midrash Rabbah (Devarim 2:12) categorically states that the Gates of Repentance are always open. It is a definitive and unconditional statement. The Midrash does not say that the Gates of Repentance are open to everyone except for Acher. Accordingly, they explain that if a person shows a sincere and heartfelt desire to repent, G-d encourages them and assists them in their pursuit of atonement. Due to Acher’s towering stature as one of the future spiritual leaders of the Jewish nation before he reneged, the consequences of his apostasy were extraordinarily far-reaching. So much so that G-d declared that even if Acher should reach a moment when he was ready to begin the process of repentance for all he had done, G-d would not help him. Acher would have to “go it alone.”

To be continued…

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