Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 20 November 2021 / 16 Kislev 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 8)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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"The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched
– they must be felt with the heart."
(Helen Keller)

The second blessing concludes: “And You have brought us close to Your Great Name forever in truth, to offer praise and thanks to You and to proclaim Your unity with love. Blessed are You, G-d, Who chooses His people with love.”

Many ideologies and religions throughout the ages have claimed that they know and understand G-d. Our blessing is teaching us that the only belief system that is “emet” — absolute truth — is Judaism because it is based entirely on the Torah, which originates from G-d Himself. All other religions and philosophies were created by humans in order to have an attachment to G-d. On the other hand, the Torah was created by G-d, and was given to us, the Jewish People, so that we can be connected to Him in the most effective way possible.

However, living a life that reflects absolute truth can be challenging. Rabbi Shimon Schwab would say that ninety-nine percent emet is one hundred percent sheker (falsehood). Perhaps Rabbi Schwab’s insight casts a light on a verse in Tehillim (90:12). The verse states, “The count of our days, let us know, and we will acquire a wise heart.” The verse indicates that a person needs wisdom to successfully count the days of their life. What is it about counting days that is so complicated that it requires a wise heart? The answer is intriguing. There is a possibility that not every day that a person resides in this physical world can be included in the final tally of days that a person “lives.” Only days that are infused with Torah and mitzvahs are truly “countable” days, and thus the verse teaches us that one needs to be wise to recognize this truth!

Our blessing ends with the declaration that G-d “chooses” us with love. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1849-1905) was the second Rebbe of Gur and one of the most brilliant and prodigious scholars of his generation, universally known as the Sefat Emet after his masterful multi-volume work covering virtually every aspect of the Torah. He points out that the blessing uses the present tense and not the past tense, as might be expected. In explaining why this is so, he offers a penetratingly beautiful explanation. G-d’s love for the Jewish nation is not something static that was established many generations ago and has since then remained unchanged. Rather, G-d renews His love for us each and every single day. This is because we declare our allegiance to Him and accept His Majesty upon us each and every day.

The Rabbis teach that G-d’s love for us and our love for Him is actually alluded to in the Hebrew words for “love,” ahavah, and for “one,” echad. Gematriya is a somewhat esoteric system that assigns numerical values to the Hebrew letters, and words sharing the same numerical value also share a deep and mystical connection. The word ahavah is comprised of the letters aleph (numerical value 1), heh (5), bet (2) and heh (5). Together they total 13, which is the same numerical value as for the Hebrew word “one,” echad — aleph (1), chet (8) and dalet (4). The most fundamental concept in the Shema is our declaration that “G-d is One.” Furthermore, when added together, the numerical value of ahavah and echad is 26, which is the same numerical value as the four-lettered ineffable Name of G-d.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837) was the outstanding scholar of his generation who was renowned for possessing breathtaking expertise in the entire gamut of the Torah, as well as complete familiarity with the entire extent of Jewish Law. He points out that the blessings before the Shema conclude with a declaration of G-d’s love for His Chosen nation. He asks: “Why is it that the final concept we mention before accepting upon ourselves G-d’s Majesty is His love for us? Are there not more crucial tenets that would assist us as we reach the sublime moment of accepting G-d as our King?”

Rabbi Akiva Eiger answers that the first paragraph of the Shema opens with the command to love G-d — “And You shall love the L-rd Your G-d.” True love needs to be mutual. Healthy and nurturing love exists only when it is reciprocal. This is why we end the blessings before the Shema with the impassioned and rousing words, “Who chooses His people with love” — to emphasize that G-d’s love for us is overarching, and that His love for us greatly assists our embrace of the mitzvah to love G-d, in return.

To be continued…

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