Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 12 March 2022 / 9 Adar Bet 5782

The Amidah (Part 8) - Blessing of Repentance

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 fifth blessing reads: “Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service, and influence us to return in perfect repentance before You. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who desires repentance.”

After having requested wisdom from Hashem, we now turn to Him to request His help in attaining repentance for the undesirable and harmful things we have done, both to ourselves and to others. In three different places in the Talmud (Yoma 38b, Avodah Zarah 55a, Menachot 29b), our Sages unconditionally state that a person who sincerely comes to purify himself will be given Divine assistance. The first step in achieving repentance is to want to repent and possess a longing to draw closer to Hashem.

In our blessing we refer to Hashem as both “our Father” and “our King.” In general, a father has infinite compassion and mercy for his child. Even when the child behaves in a reprehensible way, the father will always do his best to try finding some redeeming factors in order to forgive and assist his child. An honorable king, on the other hand, needs to rule firmly and fairly, and to dispense justice in a moral and ethical way. A king cannot always be compassionate and benevolent because this would mean risking losing the respect and the loyalty of his citizens. This explains why we refer to Hashem as “our Father” first, and, only then, as “our King” when we ask for repentance. It is our hope that Hashem will relate to us in our moments of weakness with infinite love — as would a father — and not as an uncompromising monarch who must ensure that his power not be undermined.

The famed Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859) of Kotzk, would point out that it is the way of the world for parents to feel the pain of their children, while the children are oblivious to the suffering of their parents. Then he would add, in his incisive style, that in a similar way, Hashem feels our pain, but we are blind to His misery, as it were.

The Vilna Gaon teaches that the only way to become the recipients of Hashem’s overt love is by accepting upon ourselves the Torah and the mitzvahs. Only through the Torah can we purify ourselves and return to Hashem in the optimal way. This is why our blessing first mentions returning to Hashem and His Torah, and only later mentions the concept of perfect repentance. Only by striving to live our lives according to His Torah and dedicating ourselves to understanding His Torah can we reach such perfection.

The Vilna Gaon’s primary disciple was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821). He founded and headed the foremost Yeshiva in his generation, which subsequently served as the prototype for all Yeshivas in Eastern Europe established afterwards. In his seminal work called Nefesh haChaim he writes that when we mention the Torah we refer to Hashem as our Father, but when we mention the mitzvahs we call Him our King. He explains that it is only when we are studying Hashem’s precious Torah that we can be described as being His children and that He is our Father. When, however, we perform the mitzvahs by rote, by going through the motions without studying His Torah, we are like servants following the commands of the king without any true understanding and without any real feeling. When we serve Him like that, we have distanced ourselves from Him, and we have turned our Father into our King.

The sequence of the blessings is now clear — the more wisdom a person accumulates, the greater is their ability to identify what needs correction in their life. When we ask to be brought back to Hashem’s Torah, we are acknowledging that the Torah belongs to Hashem, and that without it we are powerless to be able to do His Will.

What is the meaning of the blessing’s conclusion: “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who desires repentance”? Why was “desires” the word chosen by the Men of the Great Assembly to summarize our blessing? Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer (1837-1907), one of the foremost students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and the Chief Rabbi of Saint Petersburg, which was the capital city of the Russian empire, writes that there are times when a person has been treated so badly that he would prefer that the wrongdoer not ask for forgiveness. In that way they can be punished by Heaven for their appalling behavior. In such cases, even when the perpetrator asks for forgiveness, very often the wronged party does not forgive them in their heart. Rather, the resentment lingers and festers, and any forgiveness granted to the wrongdoer is merely superficial. Our blessing is teaching us that Hashem is not like that. Regardless of what we have done to Him, Hashem desires and waits for our repentance.

To be continued…

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