Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 23 October 2021 / 17 Cheshvan 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 4)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

"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 continues: “Our Father, the Merciful Father, Who is ever compassionate, show us compassion, instill in our hearts to understand, to clarify, to listen, to learn, to teach, to safeguard, to perform, and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah’s teachings with love.”

In his seminal work, Netivot Hakodesh, Rabbi Avraham Yisrael Solomon of Kharkov (1883-1956) points out that there is no other prayer that uses such emotionally expressive language as here. By introducing the phrase, “Our Father, the Merciful Father, Who is ever compassionate, show us compassion,” the Men of the Great Assembly, who composed the prayer, are teaching us perhaps the most fundamental lesson of all that is found within prayer. It is the lesson that there is nothing more important in this world than delving into the words of the Torah and the performance of the mitzvahs.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sher (1880-1952), one of the most brilliant Torah scholars of his generation, who headed the famed Slabodka Yeshiva both in Lithuania before the Holocaust and in Bnei Brak afterwards, makes a remarkable correlation between our blessing and the Shema immediately following it. Rabbi Sher writes that each request we make in our blessing corresponds to one of the commandments in the Shema.

In our blessing we ask that G-d grant us the ability “to understand and to clarify,” and in the Shema we are commanded to “teach them [the laws of the Torah] to your children”. Our Sages instruct us (Kiddushin 30a) that we should know the laws fluently so that we can answer someone who asks us, without hesitation.

We also ask that we are able “to listen.” The Shema commands us to listen to G-d’s commandments. What exactly is it that we are being commanded to do with the words “to listen”? We are being taught the imperative to listen to the timeless messages and lessons of the Torah.

Next we ask “to learn.” The command that corresponds to it is “And put these words on your hearts.” The Shema is commanding us to become so familiar with the words of the Torah that they become imbedded on our hearts.

Then, “to teach.” The verse in the Shema commands us to teach our children to speak about the laws of the Torah. Rashi explains that the word “children” is not just a reference to biological offspring, but also denotes one’s students (Bamidbar 3:1 and Devarim 6:7). One of the most beautiful dimensions of Judaism is the perpetual emphasis placed on the future generations, and our obligation to educate them. Not just through classroom instruction, but, perhaps even more importantly, through the way that we live our own lives. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), one of the most influential contemporary figures in the Mussar movement, writes in his classic work Alei Shur, that children are a very effective means of identifying the flaws within their parents. Why? Because, very often, the children are simply mimicking them. Therefore, we should be very careful to act and behave in the most exemplary way so that our behavior will reflect back through our children’s behavior.

“To safeguard and to perform” corresponds to the mitzvah of tzitzit, as the verse in the third paragraph of the Shema reads, “In order that you should remember and perform all My commandments.”

And, finally, “To fulfill all the words of Your Torah.” The Shema is a declaration of allegiance to G-d. We lovingly accept upon ourselves G-d’s Majesty, and we show our devotion and subservience to Him by undertaking to keep all of His commandments. This precept in the Shema corresponds to the statement in our blessing “to fulfill all the words of Your Torah.”

At first glance it might seem somewhat unnecessary to ask for exactly the same things in the blessing that we are going to mention in the Shema a moment later. However, the Slabodka Rosh Yeshiva explains that this notable list is included directly before we recite the Shema because it is a request. We are entreating G-d to help us keep all of the commandments that appear in the Shema successfully, in a way that will please our Father in Heaven.

To be continued…

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