Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 8 January 2022 / 6 Shvat 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 15)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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"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 concludes: “And all of them said, ‘Who is like You? …’ G-d will reign for all eternity. Rock of Israel, arise to the aid of Israel and liberate, as You pledged, Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer … the Holy One of Israel. Blessed are You, G-d, Who redeemed Israel.”

The straightforward understanding of our blessing is that it was Moshe Rabbeinutogether with the Jewish People who declared, “Who is like You?” After experiencing the splitting of the Red Sea and the numerous other miracles that brought them to safety, they instinctively announced that there is no other entity that shares any comparison to G-d. However, the Eitz Yosef teaches that “Who is like You?” is not just referring to the Jewish People. Rather, as the Jewish nation made its declaration, the entire world, having become aware of the awesome miracles that G-d performed at the Red Sea, joined together with them and also proclaimed, “Who is like You?” What propelled them to make such a declaration? It was the splitting of the Red Sea that caused them to come to the irrefutable conclusion that none of their idols or images was capable of doing for them anything even remotely similar to what G-d had done for His nation.

Interestingly, our blessing then continues by describing Hashem as the “Rock of Israel.” The concept of Hashem being analogous to a rock is “borrowed” from Tehillim 19:15 where Hashem is described as “my Rock.” Rabbi David Kimche (1160-1235) is considered to be one of the most brilliant grammarians in Jewish history. He wrote commentaries on the Prophets, Tehillim, Chronicles and the Chumash (of which only his commentary on Bereishet is still extant). In his commentary on Tehillim he explains the significance of G-d being described as a rock. In the same way as a rock is something of inestimable strength, so too is G-d Omnipotent. And only G-d is the One who can realize my entreaties. Subsequently, it is particularly fitting to use the phrase “Rock of Israel” immediately before we begin the Amidah, when we will turn to G-d and beseech Him to grant us the things that are closest to our hearts.

Our blessing concludes with a plea to G-d that He act with us as He did with the generation that left Egypt. In the same way that He redeemed the Jewish People from slavery and banishment, so too may He redeem us from our present type of exile. However, as the person leading the prayers recites “Baruch Atah Hashem Go’al Yisrael — Blessed are You, G-d, Who redeemed Israel” — we do not answer “amen” as is normally the case upon hearing a blessing. Rather, we are supposed to begin the Amidah straightaway. (In order to avoid answering amen to the blessing by mistake, many congregations have the custom for everyone to recite the blessing together aloud and then begin the Amidah simultaneously.) The Talmud (Brachot 4b) teaches that when we start the Amidah immediately after the final blessing, without pausing to answer amen, we are connecting the two foundational concepts of redemption and prayer. The importance of doing this is described by Rabbi Yochanan, who teaches that a person who does so is worthy of the World to Come. Rashi, citing the Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 1:1), explains that redemption without prayer is akin to a person who does not bother finishing what he has begun. It is analogous to the monarch’s beloved courtier, who, when knocking upon the king’s private door to seek an audience, does not even wait for the king to open the door. Rather, he disappears, and when the door is opened the king sees that there is no one there. In the blessings before and after the Shema we have drawn ourselves closer and closer to G-d, culminating now with our praises for the redemption from Egypt. Our Sages are teaching us here that to stop at this point, with the Divine Presence directly present in front of us, and to not continue onwards with the Amidah and our personal requests, is to misunderstand the very essence of prayer.

Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi (1180-1263), left an indelible impact on the Jewish nation. He is famous for his profound ethical treatises such as his legendary work, Shaarei Teshuvah— the Gates of Repentance — which are still being keenly studied today. He and his students also wrote a commentary on Tractate Brachot that is replete with brilliant and novel interpretations. Rabbeinu Yonah offers two explanations for why a person is worthy of the World to Come when he joins together the blessing of redemption with the Amidah.

One: the Torah states categorically that we were granted our freedom from Egypt in order to serve G-d (Vayikra 25:55). In the poignantly evocative words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the fact that we belong to G-d precludes our belonging to anyone or anything else. How are we to serve G-d? Our Sages teach us (Bava Kama 92b) that the central part of our worship is prayer, and specifically the Amidah. Therefore, a person who occupies himself with the Amidah immediately after mentioning the redemption is bearing witness to the fact that the very essence of our deliverance from slavery in Egypt was to grant us the opportunity to be able to serve G-d. Living with such a mindset is an indication that a person is truly worthy of the World to Come.

Rabbeinu Yonah’s second interpretation is that during the enslavement in Egypt the Jewish nation’s prayers were answered because they placed all their trust in G-d. In the same way, a person who focuses on the redemption and then begins the recitation of the Amidah without pausing reveals that they, too, trust that G-d will answer all of their requests. Therefore, they too will merit the World to Come.

It is with the intertwined concepts of redemption and prayer that we now conclude the blessings of the Shema and are set to begin our journey of exploration into the Amidah.

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