Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 1 January 2022 / 28 Tevet 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 14)

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: “He frees the captives, liberates the humble, helps the needy, and answers His nation, Israel, when they cry out to Him. Praises to the Supreme G-d.”

Structured prayer has been an integral dimension of Jewish life since the times of our forefathers. Our Sages teach (Brachot 26b) that the morning prayer service was instituted by Avraham, the afternoon service was initiated by Yitzchak, and Yaakov established the evening services. Every Jew’s “spiritual DNA” was inherited from our forefathers, and when we pray, we have an unparalleled moment to take advantage of an extraordinary potential for connection to G-d. The Zohar HaKadosh (Bamidbar, Balak) states that in preparing for the Amidah prayer, one should regard himself as being completely helpless and entirely reliant upon G-d. As we pray, we have the unique opportunity to stand in front of G-d in exactly the same way as our forefathers did. However, in order to do so in the most effective way possible, we must follow the advice of our blessing and cry out to G-d in the manner of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – with absolute purity and sincerity. As we stand on the cusp of reciting the Amidah, we must recognize our complete and absolute dependency on G-d for our prayer to occur with the appropriate state of mind.

The nineteenth century Eastern European prodigy, Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef, was a prolific author. Among many other works, his commentaries on the Midrash Rabbah and the Ein Yaakov are seen as essential to understanding the esoteric lessons contained in our classic texts. He also authored an insightful and thought-provoking commentary on the prayers that is printed in the classic Siddur titled Otzar Hatefillot. In his commentary on our blessing, he points out that the four different descriptions which appear in our blessing correspond to the four expressions in the Torah describing the stages of the redemption from Egypt (Shemot 6:6-7). They also correspond to the four cups of wine we drink at the Seder on Pesach night.

  • “He frees captives” corresponds to “Vehotzeiti – And I shall take you out.”
  • “Liberates the humble” corresponds to “Vegalti – And I shall redeem.”
  • “Helps the needy” corresponds to “Vehitzalti – And I shall save.”
  • “And answers His nation, Israel” corresponds to “Velakachti – And I shall take you.”

As we come within reach of the Amidah, a new facet of G‑d is being introduced into our prayer: Hashem is the “Supreme G-d.” In Hebrew, the title “Supreme G-dKel Elyon” carries with it the understanding that it is impossible for human beings to fathom G-d’s ways. He is so “lofty” that He is above our comprehension. It is precisely because G-d is so exalted that we are able to turn to Him in the Amidah and ask Him for anything and everything.

In Tehillim (105:3) King David declares, “Be glad of heart, you who seek (mevakesh) G-d”. In the Siddur of the Vilna Gaon, the word mevakesh is defined as someone who invests great effort in seeking out G-d’s bountiful goodness but has not yet received what it is that he is asking for. Rabbi Yitzchak Ber Weiss (Siach Yitzchak), paraphrasing Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), the brilliant Spanish scholar and philosopher famous for his masterpiece Sefer haIkrim, asks how a person can be “glad of heart” before he has been given what he was asking for. Rabbi Weiss explains that in physical endeavors when a person seeks out something specific but does not attain it, all the toil is for naught. However, when it comes to seeking out G-d, the toil is never for naught. When it comes to spiritual pursuits, it is the very quest that becomes the vehicle for drawing a person closer to their Father in Heaven. In the spiritual realms, it is the effort and the determination which makes a person “glad of heart.” Or, in the words of Rabbi Albo: “A person who dedicates himself to seeking G-d demonstrates that they have found G-d to be the ultimate good fortune, and they therefore rejoice as they seek.”

Truly a tantalizing concept!

To be continued…

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