Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 5 February 2022 / 4 Adar Alef 5782

The Amidah (Part 3) - Birkat Ha'avot

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“Prayer is not a miracle. It is a tool, man’s paintbrush in the art of life. Prayer is man’s weapon to defend himself in the struggle of life. It is a reality. A fact of life.”
(Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer)

The blessing continues with the words,“The great, mighty and awesome G-d, the supreme G-d, Who bestows beneficial kindness and creates everything, Who recalls the kindness of the Patriarchs and brings a Redeemer to their children’s children for His Name’s sake, with love.”

The Amidah opens with powerfully descriptive expressions for G-d. G-d is “great,” “mighty,” “awesome” and “supreme.” These descriptions all focus on G-d’s infinite might and conjure up visions of extreme and exacting judgment. Yet, the Amidah also describes G-d as being the wellspring of beneficial kindness. The two descriptions seem to be dichotomous. On the one hand, G-d is all-powerful and exacting. At the same time, on the other hand, He is compassionate and beneficent. Certainly, in reality, both of those descriptions are perfectly accurate. G-d expects from us to live our lives according to His Will, constantly studying His Torah so that we can flourish by living His commandments. But, in His infinite wisdom, G-d understands that our shortcomings can dampen our spiritual aspirations and lead to inappropriate behavior. He therefore relates to us both as the Omnipotent G-d, demanding that we constantly expand our spiritual vistas — and also relates to us as our All-Merciful G-d, Who takes into account our human frailties.

The first Rebbe of the Karlin-Stolin Chassidut, Rabbi Aharon ben Yaakov known as the Beit Aharon (1736-1772), once instructed two of his followers to study the chapter that describes Gehinom in the classic work Reishit Chochmah. He asked them to come back to him in three months’ time and tell him what they had learned and internalized. On their return, the Rebbe asked the first one what he had gleaned. The Chassid started telling the Rebbe how frightening it was. The author of the Reishit Chochmah describes Gehinom in vivid detail, and the Chassid told his Rebbe that he was left trembling each time he thought about the punishment awaiting a person for each sin he has done. On hearing his Chassid’s reaction, the Rebbe told him, “Gehinom is not as awful as its description. We have a compassionate Father. When you repent for your actions, you will be forgiven by your Father in Heaven.”

The Rebbe then turned to the second Chassid and asked him what he had learned. The Chassid repeated what he had studied in the book, without any sign of discomfort or concern. It was obvious that whatever he had learned had not impacted him. So, the Rebbe explained to him that the portrayal of Gehinom appearing in Reishit Chochmah is simply a parable. “You should know” said the Rebbe, “that Gehinom is far, far worse than any description you might find in a book!”

After the two left the Rebbe’s presence, his attendant asked him how it was possible that the two opposing approaches taken by the Rebbe could coexist together. “Can we rely on Divine mercy to mitigate the agony of Gehinom, like you told the first Chassid? Or, is Gehinom the terrifying place of unmitigated suffering as you described to the second Chassid?” The Rebbe replied, “If a person is afraid of Gehinom, he has nothing to fear. But if he isn't fearful, he has a lot to be afraid of.”

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (Tur, Orach Chaim 113) notes that the blessing “Who redeemed Israel,” which directly precedes the Amidah, is located next to the first blessing of the Amidah. This teaches us, he says, that even if there would come a time when the merits of the forefathers would be exhausted, we can be assured that G-d’s promise to redeem us is never in doubt and is guaranteed to be fulfilled. This is the meaning of the phrase “for His Name’s sake.” Of course, the possibility of the forefathers’ merits being used up is virtually inconceivable. Nevertheless, the Tur emphasizes the infinite extent of G‑d’s love for us, His chosen nation.

Rabbi Menachem Ziemba (1883-1943, Poland) was one of the most brilliant and incisive Torah scholars of his generation. He was fluent in the entirety of both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, and was one of the most influential members of Poland’s spiritual leadership. His empathy and his uncanny ability to understand the heart of each problem made him a much sought-after address for those seeking advice and succor. Together with his fellow Jews, he was incarcerated in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, where he worked ceaselessly to assist all those in need and to establish secret locations throughout the ghetto where Torah was learned without cessation until the ghetto’s final moments. According to eye witness accounts, Rabbi Ziemba was a never-ending source of inspiration and optimism to all inhabitants of the ghetto until the day he was murdered by the Nazis. He points out that the words “recalls” and “brings” in this blessing are both in the present tense. At first glance, it would seem more fitting if the words had been written in the future tense, signifying our belief that we will be ultimately redeemed. Rabbi Ziemba explains that G-d made an irrevocable covenant with Avraham (Ber.15:13), and that Divine commitment means that the Jewish nation will always survive. Despite the best attempts of the various nations of the world to destroy us, we are still here awaiting the glorious moment when the unconditional redemption will take place, may it happen very soon! In effect, this means that each day G-d “remembers” the forefathers and that each day draws the redemption closer — hence the present tense.

In the Book of Yeshayahu (63:9), the prophet declares, “With His love and with His compassion He redeemed them; He lifted them and bore them all the days of the world.” The Malbim writes that despite the fact that G-d’s Presence is concealed in this world — sometimes to the point that the future looks truly bleak — He is nevertheless constantly sustaining and supporting us, His chosen nation. And, when the time comes, G-d, in all His resplendent glory, will redeem us. The concept of G-d redeeming us with love indicates that when the time of the final redemption arrives, G-d will let us feel as if we are being redeemed because we deserve it due to our merits, and not because of His overwhelming benevolence towards us. As a result, we will be able to rejoice with genuine pleasure, not feeling inadequate and ashamed at our lack of accomplishments.

To be continued…

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