Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 12 February 2022 / 11 Adar Alef 5782

The Amidah (Part 4) 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 first blessing concludes,“O King, Helper, Savior, and Shield. Blessed are you, G-d, Shield of Avraham.”

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) was the Rabbi of Konigsberg in East Prussia. His most famous work was HaKetav v’Hakabblah, which proves the indivisibility of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. He also authored a commentary on the Siddur called Iyun Tefillah (not to be confused with Rabbi Shimon Schwab’s commentary with the same name). In his commentary he explains that the G-d is described as being “Helper” because G-d helps those who attempt to help themselves. Our Sages teach us that there is a concept called hishtadlut — that, as a rule, we should not just sit back and expect G-d to take care of everything. Rather, we must be proactive in trying to find solutions to our problems. If we do so, G-d joins together with us and helps us. That is why He is described as “Helper”. However, there is a level that surpasses “hishtadlut” and that is when a person is so completely helpless in the face of whatever they are grappling with and they are so entirely powerless to act. As a result, they have no other alternative than to turn to G-d and place their trust entirely in His Hands. At such times, G-d saves the person even without the person being actively involved. This is why He is also referred to as “Savior.”

Rabbi Elya Lopian explains that when G-d acts in the role of either “Helper” or “Savior” He does so by using the natural world so that His acts are hidden behind a veneer of being “natural.” However, there is an even higher level of connection to G-d that is so elevated that it generates Divine protection in a supernatural fashion. And that is someone who is prepared to put his life in danger to serve G-d. For such a selfless person, G-d becomes a “Shield,” protecting the person and assisting him in an obviously unearthly fashion.

Perhaps this explains two verses in Tehillim (91:11-12): “He [G-d] will send His angels to protect you on all your travels. They will carry you on their hands, lest you hurt your feet on a stone.” Why does G-d command the angels to carry the traveler above the stones? Surely, it would be simpler to have the angels remove the stones so that he can walk smoothly along the path ahead of him. G-d gives everything its particular location in this world – even a simple, inanimate stone has been placed where it is by G‑d. If so, even the place where the stone lies is an integral part of G-d’s plan, and sometimes it cannot be moved. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) teaches that the person being spoken about is someone whose sole concern is to do G-d’s Will without taking into account their own personal comfort and safety. Therefore, for those who live their lives on the loftiest spiritual planes, G-d shields them and raises them above the stones in a supernatural way.

The first blessing in the Amidah ends with the words “…Shield of Avraham.” Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1939), was the famed Rosh Yeshiva in Grodno, Belarus. He was considered to be one of the most brilliant and influential leaders of the Yeshiva world during the upheavals of the First World War and the calamitous buildup to the Holocaust. He has a beautifully poignant explanation as to why Avraham is singled out by name, whereas the two following blessings only allude to Yitzchak and Yaakov without mentioning them directly. In Judaism ancestry is often quite emphasized. A person who comes from a prestigious lineage of Torah scholars and spiritual mentors might mistakenly imagine that their antecedents are a reason for them to be treated with extra honor despite the fact that they, themselves, have not reached similar levels of scholarship and righteousness. Yitzchak merited having an illustrious father. Yaakov had both his father and his grandfather to learn from. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that they reached the towering heights that they did. Not so Avraham. Our forefather Avraham came from a family of idol worshipers. He had no distinguished lineage whatsoever. Nothing to feel proud of. And, yet, Avraham, despite his complete lack of pedigree, found G-d all by himself, and revealed G-d’s Majesty to all those around him. From absolutely nothing, he succeeded in building a relationship with G-d that would become the prototype for the Jewish nation’s spiritual aspirations. As we conclude the first blessing of the Amidahthe prayer that expresses our closeness and intimacy with G-d — it is imperative that each and every one of us clearly understands that our connection to the Divine is defined only by ourselves. It is not classified by how esteemed our parents and grandparents are. So, too, such a relationship is not unattainable because of a paucity of lineage. Rather, it is available to all. And it is dependent on only one factor, and that is how I relate to G-d.

To be continued…

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