Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 27 November 2021 / 23 Kislev 5782

The Blessings of the Shema (Part 9)

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 third blessing begins: “G-d is true and certain, established and enduring, fair and faithful, beloved and cherished, delightful and pleasant, awesome and powerful, correct and accepted, good and beautiful is this affirmation to us forever and ever”

Our blessing opens with sixteen different descriptions to define “this affirmation”. Yet, strangely enough, the verse does not seem to tell us what “this affirmation” actually refers to. The commentaries explain that it is a reference to the verses that we have just recited in the Shema. There are sixteen verses from the beginning of the Shema until the end of the second paragraph. Thus, the final blessing of the Shema begins with sixteen different declarations, each one verifying the validity of its corresponding verse.

I once heard a deceptively simple idea, but an idea that is also exceptionally thought-provoking, from Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo, one of the leader of the Ohel Yaakov Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He pointed out that with so many different descriptions, there seems to be one category that is missing from the sixteen. The word “easy” — “kal” in Hebrew — is notably absent. Rabbi Ben Shlomo explained that the reason is obvious. There is nothing “easy” about our relationship with G-d. In fact, there should be nothing easy about it. Things that come easily have a habit of disappearing just as easily. Our connection to G-d requires continual effort and input. Even when we feel a true closeness to G-d, there is always room for fine-tuning that connection, to enhance it and to make it even more significant.

In the gym there is a phrase that is regarded as being the international motif of the exercise world: “No Pain, No Gain.” As with many slogans that conquer the world — or, at the very least, the international marketplace — it actually has its roots in the timeless lessons of our Sages. In Ethics of the Fathers (in the last Mishna of chapter five), Ben Hei Hei teaches, “L’phum tzara agra,” which is Aramaic for “The reward is in proportion to the exertion.” Or, in our modern lexicon — no pain, no gain! Rashi explains that the amount of spiritual reward we receive for our actions is in direct proportion to the amount of effort and difficulty that went into performing our actions. Rabbi Shmuel ben Isaac de Uceda, in his classic commentary, Midrash Shmuel, adds the most beautiful clarification to Rashi’s original explanation. G-d’s reward for learning His Torah is not measured simply by how much a person remembers and understands. Nor is it determined solely according to how many innovative concepts a person originates. Rather, G-d bestows reward according to how much toil and determination went into learning it. And, he adds, one who truly strives to learn Torah will receive an abundance of reward even if they, seemingly, did not manage to accomplish very much.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the revered head of the illustrious Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem, would point out that Jewish Law instructs us to stand up for Torah scholars as a sign of respect for the vast amount of Torah knowledge they have acquired. But there is no similar directive to stand up for a pregnant woman, despite our Sages’ teaching that a fetus is taught the entirety of the Torah while in the womb (Niddah 30). The reason is that the fetus does not toil to understand the Torah; it simply absorbs the Torah with no effort whatsoever. When we stand up in respect for a Torah scholar, we are doing so not just because of their prodigious knowledge, but also because of the toil and effort that went into their acquiring it.

There is a delightful story told about Rabbi Yehosua Eizik Shapiro, one of the most brilliant Rabbis of the nineteenth century, who is universally known as Rabbi Eizel Charif (charif means sharp) because of his acutely sharp intellect and his razor-sharp answers for all facets of Torah. In his quest to find an appropriate husband for his beloved daughter, he travelled to one of the most prestigious yeshivahs at the time and posed an extremely detailed and complex question. He announced that whoever could come up with the correct answer would be a worthy candidate to marry his daughter. The yeshiva students all toiled to find the answer. But, as each one offered a possible solution, Rabbi Eizel Charif explained why that answer was inadequate. After a few days, Rabbi Eizel Charif realized that no one would succeed in arriving at the answer. So, he boarded his carriage to leave the town to go looking elsewhere for a potential son-in-law. As his carriage began to move off, one student raced after it while shouting that the wagon driver should stop. When he finally caught up, he said to Rabbi Eizel Charif, “Rebbe, please tell me the answer. Unfortunately, I did not merit being your son-in-law, but at least tell me the answer to the question, because not knowing it is driving me to distraction!” Rabbi Eizel Charif looked at the young man and with a broad smile he told him, “Primarily, I was seeking someone who desires to know the answer. And you passed that test! The desire to know Torah is more important to me than your level of Torah knowledge itself. I want you to be my daughter’s husband!”

This brings us to another “modern” idiom that has been universally embraced and is undoubtedly true. When William Ritter, a contemporary American author, wrote, “failure is not the opposite of success — it is part of success,” he was unwittingly paraphrasing Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s writings from more than one hundred and fifty years earlier. In his uniquely articulate fashion, Rabbi Hirsch writes, “It is not the quantitative measure of the moral and spiritual goals that a person has actually achieved that constitute the true worth of a life’s course. It is the measure of earnest striving, of devoted endeavor, of sacrifices made and privation endured — all for the realization of good purposes — that determine the true worth of both a person and their life. Actual success can come only from the Hands of G-d Himself.”

So, no, “easy” is not one of the sixteen definitions that the blessing after the Shema starts with. Because if it were easy, then it would not be an accurate reflection of the inner, spiritual yearning that each person has — to bring joy to the Creator and the Sustainer of the universe.

To be continued…

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