Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 5 March 2022 / 2 Adar Bet 5782

The Amidah (Part 7) - Blessing of Insight

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 fourth blessing reads: “You graciously endow man with wisdom and teach insight to a human. Endow us graciously from Yourself with wisdom, insight and discernment. Blessed are You, G-d, gracious Giver of wisdom.”

The fourth blessing is the first of a series of thirteen blessings in which we ask G-d to grant our personal requests. Why are wisdom and insight the opening theme for these thirteen blessings? After all, there are several other blessings in the series that might be considered of greater importance. The Vilna Gaon explains that human wisdom is the main element that differentiates us from the animal world. Therefore, we begin with an appeal to G-d that He grant us the wisdom and the insight to be able to recognize how to live our lives, and that we are perceptive enough to use our wisdom to guide us to the correct conclusions. In fact, this is such a fundamental point that Rabbi Ami (Tractate Brachot 33a) declares, “So great is ‘understanding,’ that it is placed at the beginning of the weekday blessings.” Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet (1235-1310), often known as the Rashba (an acronym of his title and name), was the spiritual leader of Spanish Jewry. Blessed with an exceptionally gifted intellect, he wrote, among other things, commentaries on the Talmud. His thousands of responsa, covering the entire gamut of Jewish law, were published posthumously. The Rashba writes that it is absolutely logical that wisdom and insight are the first request, because it is only with genuine understanding that a person can repent for his sins and ask G-d for forgiveness. Rabbi Ami then goes on to make a very stark statement: “It is forbidden to have mercy on a person who does not have understanding.” The commentaries explain that Rabbi Ami is speaking about a person who does not trouble himself to use the intellect that G-d gave him. Such a person is negligently ignoring the opportunity to draw closer to G-d, and, consequently, he loses his prerogative to Divine mercy.

Interestingly, this is the only blessing in the middle section of the Amidah that does not open directly with a request. Rather, it first praises G-d, and only then do we ask G-d to help us reach an elevated level of understanding. Perhaps it is possible to understand why the format of this blessing is different from the others by focusing on the word for “endow” — chonen in Hebrew. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the two-letter root of the word chonen is chet nun, which spells the word “chen.Chen is a difficult word to translate because it relates to an inner dimension of a person. It really describes no physical aspect. Since it is granted to a person by G-d, it lacks tangibility, and, therefore it is nearly impossible to define. Chen is what lets people connect on a deeper level even when they do not know each other particularly well. Chen is what makes a person feel content and fortunate to be in another’s presence even if they have only just met. Rabbi Hirsch connects chen to the similarly spelled word “chinam — free.” In the same way that it is possible that a person who has been granted chen might be undeserving of it, so, too, our blessing teaches that G-d bestows knowledge on mankind even if it is undeserved. Or, even worse, when mankind uses their G-d-given wisdom to deny His Divinity.

In its simpler understanding, the word “da’at — wisdom” —refers to our ability to think. However, the commentaries add a whole new level of understanding to our blessing, pointing out that the word da’at also means connection (see Ber. 4:1).

Accordingly, the knowledge that G-d has so generously granted to us should be used to build a relationship with Him. For a person to not use his wisdom constructively is truly a travesty because he is rejecting the very Source of his knowledge.

Within the blessing we beseech G-d to grant us three different forms of knowledge: “chochma — wisdom,” “binah — insight” and “da’at — discernment.” Chochma is knowledge that is taught to us. For example, a young child who is taught that two and two equals four now knows more than before. Binah is closely related to the word boneh — build. Binah allows a person to take their preexisting knowledge and to build upon it. In the words of the Midrash (Mishlei parsha 1), binah means to “understand something by means of something else.” Thus, a child who knows that two plus two equals four can now work out alone that two plus three equals five. Not so da’at. Da’at is the highest level of understanding. Whereas chochma and binah are attainable by everyone, and they are both prerequisites for da’at, da’at itself can only be attained by those to whom G-d grants it. It is not a discipline that can be learned. Rather, it is the highest level of attachment to G-d. This is why Rashi defines da’at as being ruach hakodesh, Divine inspiration. (Shemot 31:3)

Our blessing concludes with the words, “Blessed are You, G-d, gracious Giver of wisdom.” The wisdom here does not refer to secular knowledge. Rather, it refers to Torah knowledge and insight. Our Sages teach that all wisdom in the world should be utilized to recognize and serve G-d. Our Rabbis teach that the most direct method of doing so is through His Torah, because the Torah gives us the insight to know what it is that G-d wants from us. Therefore, we end with an expression of thanks to G-d for giving us the opportunity to study His Torah and to gain greater clarity into how to live our lives.

To be continued…

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