Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 25 December 2021 / 21 Tevet 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 13)

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, You are the First and You are the Last, and other than You we have no king, redeemer or savior. You redeemed us from Egypt, our G‑d, and from the house of slavery You liberated us.”

The final section of our blessing switches its focus from affirming everything that we declared in the Shema to the redemption from Egypt, which is a Torah obligation to remember each day. The word “true” is repeated several times in the blessing to emphasize the centrality of the Exodus.

By declaring that G-d is “the First” and “the Last” we are also affirming that G-d is also everything else in between. There is no moment when G-d is not present and watching over us, ensuring that we as the Jewish nation will endure forever. There have been many dark and tragic periods in Jewish history when G-d’s presence seemed to have been absent. But this mistaken perception could not be further from the truth. It is not the reality and not the truth. Rather, our ability to recognize His overt presence is missing. Even at the bleakest times, when it appears to us that G-d has abandoned us to our enemies and we will be enslaved in perpetuity, it is not true. G-d is our Redeemer and our Savior. And He always will be.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) was a famed Rabbi of Brisk in Belarus and one of the greatest scholars of his generation, renowned for his exacting and rigorous approach to understanding and elucidating the Torah. He explains that there are two dimensions to slavery. The first one is that a slave is the property of his master. Even when he is not physically involved in working, he still belongs to his master who can do with him as he wishes. The second dimension to slavery is that the slave sees no fruit from his labors despite the fact that he is put to work. Everything he produces is owned by his master. This reality is the cause of enormous mental anguish. Accordingly, the phrase, “You redeemed us from Egypt, our G-d, and from the house of slavery You liberated us” is referring to these two different dimensions of slavery. “You redeemed us” refers to the physical slavery that ended and that we no longer have to be involved in backbreaking toil that produces nothing for us. On the other hand, the “liberation” refers to our being freed from the physical subjugation of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The Maharal points out that often when a person has been enslaved for a very long time, they remain in a mental state of servitude long after they have been physically released from bondage. After 210 years of enslavement, G-d needed to remove the mental chains of slavery that generations of Jews had lived under, just as He needed to physically remove us from Egypt.

When describing to Moshe Rabbeinu how He was going to free His chosen nation from slavery, G-d says (Shemot 6:7), “I shall take you to Me for a people, and I shall be a G-d to you, and you shall know that I am your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” The first Rebbe from Gur, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, points out that the word for “burden” in Hebrew is closely related to the word for “tolerance.” He explains that the root of the problem in Egypt was that the Jewish People had become so accustomed to slavery that they became tolerant of their enslaved state to the point that they no longer had any expectations of being liberated.

To live an existence that offers no hope for the future is possibly the most dismal reality of all. Even under the most appalling circumstances, a Jew must never abandon the anticipation that “G-d’s salvation can come at the blink of an eye” (Midrash Lekach Tov for Esther 4:17). Rabbi Yisrael Spira (1889-1989) was the saintly and revered Rebbe of Bluzhov, a great-grandson of the Bnei Yissachar and a Holocaust survivor who spent the war years in the Janowska and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. He would try to give emotional and spiritual support to his fellow inmates. He would tell them that the Hebrew word for slave is “avadim,” which is spelled ‘ayin’ ‘bet’ ‘dalet’ ‘yud’ ‘mem.’ These letters form the acronym for the Hebrew phrase, “David Ben Yishai Avdecha Meshicha — Your slave David the son of Yishai is the chosen one (the Messiah).” Then he would tell them that even in their present impoverished spiritual state and subhuman physical conditions — even while deeply-mired in their reality of being “avadim” — we find allusions to the eventual freedom we await with the coming of the Messiah. G-d is together with us wherever we find ourselves.

The Rabbis offer an additional explanation as to why our blessing uses both the word redeemer and the word savior. The Hebrew words for redeemer and savior are “goel” and “moshiah.” According to the Rabbis, the difference between the two is quite significant. “Goel” means a redemption that is all-embracing, an absolute salvation, whereas “moshiah” is only a partial deliverance from the danger. Regardless of whether we are being redeemed entirely or only partially, the Source is the always the same.

To be continued…

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