Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 26 November 2022 / 2 Kislev 5783

The Amidah (Part 26): The Final Blessing: Peace (part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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“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 Avrahom Chaim Feuer)

The nineteenth blessing reads: “Establish peace, goodness, blessing, graciousness, kindness, and compassion upon us and upon all of Your people Israel. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your Countenance You gave us, our Hashem, the Torah of life and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace. And may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel in every season and in every hour with Your peace. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who blesses His people Israel with peace.

Our blessing opens with a plea that Hashem “establish peace, graciousness, kindness and compassion.” Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), the brilliant Spanish Torah scholar renowned for his masterpiece Sefer HaIkrim, defines “graciousness, kindness and compassion” as stages a person goes through in their spiritual development. When a person focuses on self-growth and becoming a better person, they become the recipient of Hashem’s graciousness. However, there are times when continuous growth is too difficult to sustain. At those times, even though there is no recent additional growth, if a person succeeds in holding on to the levels that they have previously reached, Hashem relates to them with kindness. And there are moments when a person’s connection to Hashem is so weakened by their negative actions that they actually move away from Hashem. Even under those circumstances, Hashem is compassionate and patient.

Rabbi Eliezer Horowitz (d.1806) was the rabbi in Tarnogrod, Poland. He was a disciple of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. He was renowned for his deep analytical thinking and for his riveting Torah teachings to the public. After his passing, a book of his Torah thoughts and innovative insights was published under the title of Noam Megadim u’Chevod HaTorah. In the Torah portion of Nasso,he questions how it is possible for us to ask Hashem to fulfill all our needs and desires. Due to our never-ending demands, it is impossible for us to delineate them all. Therefore, he explains that our blessing entreats Hashem that we be blessed with “the light of Your Countenance” because when Hashem illuminates our lives, we will merit experiencing all the goodness that there is to be had in our physical world.

It is, however, perhaps somewhat chutzpadik for us to imagine that we can ask Hashem to illuminate our lives when, at the very same time, we may not be living our lives in exactly the way Hashem demands from us. Rabbi Elya Lopian explains that this is the reason why our blessing speaks of “love of kindness.” It is not enough to perform acts of kindness. Rather, we have to aspire to reach the level of loving kindness. Of course, the only way to attain such an exalted level is to be continuously involved with doing acts of kindness so that this desire becomes ingrained within us.

As our blessing continues, we ask for “kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace.” But, we have already asked for peace! The very opening words of our blessing are “establish peace,” and our Sages have already taught us the significance of peace and its impact on our lives. Why the repetition? There are times when it might be possible to imagine that it is morally and ethically justifiable to not be at peace with certain people. Our blessing teaches us a fundamental concept: When true peace – shalom – is established, not only will it be possible to forgive those who have harmed us, but we will want to forgive them. Living at odds with another, and at the same time basking in the holy light that radiates from Hashem’s countenance, is irreconcilable.

And then the term peace is mentioned for yet a third time in the same blessing. With this reference to peace we are petitioning Hashem that there be no more war. We seek that the nations of the world will live in harmony, and that we, as Hashem’s chosen nation, will be able to serve Him without fear of inquisitions, pogroms, massacres and Holocausts. It is truly a beautiful and poignant plea with which to end our recitation of the blessings of the Amidah.

The very final words of the last tractate in the Mishna (Uktzin 3:12) teach in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, found no vessel to hold blessing for Israel other than peace, as it is stated (Tehillim29:11), ‘‘Hashem gives strength to His nation, Hashem blesses His nation with peace.’” Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654) eloquently writes in his indispensable commentary on the Mishna called Tosfot Yom Tov that it is an inescapable fact that no blessing in the world can be sustained in the absence of peace.

In the same way that the Oral Torah concludes with the inspirational and foundational concept of peace, so too does the Amidah draw to a close with the same theme. The necessity for peace is so fundamental that the Sifra (a Midrashic text on Sefer Vayikra) states that “A person can be blessed with wealth, a plentitude of food and drink, but without peace it is all worthless.”

As we reach the conclusion of the blessings, perhaps it is the moment to attempt to comprehend a seeming contradiction between the Talmud and the Amidah. Our Sages teach (Ta’anit 8b) that one cannot pray for two things at once. We should only pray for one thing at a time. However, it is clear from the blessings of the Amidah that we have just presented Hashem with a long list of diverse requests. Sometimes, there are even more than one request within a single blessing. How, then, can we reconcile the Talmud’s injunction with the format of the Amidah? The Chatam Sofer explains that despite the Amidah being comprised of so many different requests, they are all, essentially, only one – to serve Hashem in the best possible way we can. As it states (Tehillim27:4), “One thing I ask from Hashem… That I should dwell in the house of Hashem… to behold the sweetness of Hashem and to visit the House of Hashem.” King David declares that he is asking only for one thing, and then he asks for three! How is that possible? The Chatam Sofer answers that, in reality, everything that King David is asking for – and everything that we are asking for in the Amidah – is really just to accomplish one aspiration — to merit drawing even closer to Hashem.

To be continued…

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