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Start Small

3 minute read
Straightforward

The episode of The Golden Calf stands out as a particularly low moment in Jewish history.

Following such miraculous events as the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea, among other supernatural phenomena, the Jewish People panicked because their leader was running late. They somehow concluded that an idol was the solution to their troubles.

In the aftermath, the Jewish People grappled with the consequences and sought to make amends. One form that took was the half-shekel tax, a mandatory contribution from every individual that went towards building the Mishkan. This act of collective responsibility and atonement symbolized the beginning of their journey back towards redemption.

R’ Meilech Biderman highlights how, among other things, the very fact of a half shekel is itself a symbol that teaches a crucial lesson about the nature of human endeavors and the path to improvement and redemption.

A half isn’t a whole, just a part. But it’s a start, and that’s what matters.

A half shekel is a modest contribution that highlights the power of small beginnings; Jewish thought tends to value gradual, consistent progress over grand but fleeting efforts. Starting with small, initial steps is essential for meaningful change; small actions are enough to overcome the scary prospect of starting over and the fear of failure. The half-shekel, being just a fraction of a whole, symbolizes that even partial efforts are valuable starting points.

Small things add up, and they stack and compound quickly.

You just have to get started.

It is easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better decisions on a daily basis; small things are, by definition, not impressive. They are boring and don’t make headlines. But the thing about small commitments, though, is that they work.

Small commitments work because they are easy to stick to; it’s something worth being intentional about when change is on your mind.

R’ Leib Chasman’s students would ask him to recommend New Year’s resolutions, and the sage would reply that they could decide for themselves but to make sure to pick something they could keep to. After thinking, they would share their choices with their teacher, and he would interrogate them. “Are you sure you can keep your resolution?” “I’m certain.” “Great! I want you to cut it in half.”

Commitments and resolutions don’t need to be hard to do; they just need to be something you keep. In that regard, it’s actually better to start small! R’ Yisrael Salanter, the founding father of the Mussar movement, strategically taught that rather than a whole undertaking, surgically target the smallest element; instead of hoping to pray better in general, set a goal of praying one particular blessing more thoughtfully.

Keeping small commitments is what forms new behaviors, habits, patterns, and routines. The philosophy of incremental improvement is echoed in modern self-improvement strategies. The conventional wisdom is to set a large goal and then take big leaps to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible; such enormous strides often lead to burnout and disappointment. Instead, embracing gradual change and appreciating the compound effect of minor improvements can be more sustainable and effective.

R’ Chatzkel Levenstein intuitively suggests that a human can only be obligated to achieve what is possible within a calendar year, comparing personal growth to a loan that is paid off in installments. You don’t pay a mortgage off in one month; that’s not how mortgages work.

Maintaining basic, consistent efforts is often more fruitful than seeking dramatic transformations. Improving by just one percent is barely noticeable. In the beginning, there is hardly any difference between making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse; it won’t impact you much today. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you soon find a huge gap between people who make slightly better choices on a daily basis and those who don’t. If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.

The journey back from the brink of one of the Torah’s most significant crises began with a simple yet profound gesture of giving a half-shekel.

It wasn’t much, but it reminds us of the impact of small actions and choices that don’t seem to make much of a difference at the time but add up and compound. The small things we stick with are what ultimately shape our long-term trajectory and path forward.

Pick something small; just get started and see how far it takes you.

Elokai Netzor – Concluding Passage

18 minute read
Straightforward

יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ צוּרִי וְגוֹאֲלִי

אֱלֹהַי נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה פְּתַח לִבִּי

בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ וְאַחֲרֵי מִצְוֹתֶיךָ תִּרְדּוֹף נַפְשִׁי וְכָל הַקָמִים וְהַחוֹשְׁבִים עָלַי רָעָה מְהֵרָה הָפֵר עֲצָתָם וְקַלְקֵל מַחֲשַׁבְתָּם

עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ, עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן יְמִינֶךָ, עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן תּוֹרָתֶךָ, עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן קְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ. לְמַעַן יֵחָלְצוּן יְדִידֶיךָ הוֹשִׁיעָה יְמִינְךָ וַעֲנֵנִי: יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ צוּרִי וְגוֹאֲלִי

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו  הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן

May they be acceptable the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart, before You Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. To those who curse me, may my soul be still; and let my soul be like dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah and let my soul pursue Your commandments. And all who plan evil against me, quickly annul their counsel and frustrate their intention.

Act for the sake of Your Name. Act for the sake of Your right hand. Act for the sake of Your Torah. Act for the sake of Your holiness. In order that Your loved ones be released, deliver with Your right hand and answer me. May they be acceptable the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart before You Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.

He Who makes peace in His high heavens – may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel and say – Amen!

History

When the Men of the Great Assembly drafted the Amida, there were several proposed submissions for the concluding prayer. This version was authored by Mar Bar Rav Ashi and was ultimately selected for inclusion.

The other sages had written prayers upon finishing the Amida, but this was chosen as a natural continuation of the last prayer. My lips have been engaged in prayer; please protect me from doing the things that will foul or harm their suitability for prayer.

More than words

We have said what there is to say other than some short closing remarks, but we ask God to see past our words and voice; sometimes, our deepest desires are things we’re not even consciously aware of, things we cannot express or understand.

If I am unworthy of having my prayers answered, that’s on me; at the end of my prayers, I acknowledge that which is why the concluding prayer is personal. Hopefully, at this point in our prayers, there is something more than words to our prayers, and something has stirred in our hearts – וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי.

We ask God to accept our prayer holistically, from our outer words to the innermost thoughts of the heart – אִמְרֵי פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי

Guard my tongue

In a sense, this closing prayer mirrors the opening prayer for God to open our lips for prayer – אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ.

It also complements the previous prayer for our words to be desirable – יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי פִי.

On Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av, we recall the Ten Martyrs, legendary sages executed by the Roman Empire. One of them, Rabbi Hutzpit, was dismembered and dragged through the streets after his murder. Another sage, Elisha ben Avuya, witnessed Rabbi Hutzpit’s tongue rolling on the floor and was horrified; the experience radically undermined his belief that dedication to the Torah would, by definition, be rewarded, exclaiming in shock, “Should a mouth which produced such pearls of Torah, now lick the dust? In a tragic turn, he sadly became a heretic. But his point stands; it is unbecoming to profane our mouths.

R’ Shimon Bar Yochai suggested that since God wanted to give the Torah to humans, God might have created humans with two mouths: one for words of Torah and holiness and one for talking and eating. The implied premise of the question is that perhaps dualism is the correct view, and we ought to protect good from being tainted by evil. Yet we know we only have one mouth for all the good and evil because dualism is the wrong way to look at the world; that’s just not how things work.

Like the boy who cries wolf, when a person erodes and undermines their credibility and integrity, no one believes them even when it’s true. This prayer is a commitment to using your mouth, tongue, and speech for truth and honesty.

All we can do is be careful to guard our tongues and pray for assistance

Unlike every other prayer in the Amida, this prayer takes personal responsibility. The rest of the Amida is in the plural, in the community’s name; there is no hiding in the crowd here. This is about my speech, my tongue, my responsibility – נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי.

There is evil and trickery; evil things are usually true, and trickery is usually not. But I also want to avoid trickery, even if it’s not evil! Fun and jokes can still be problematic when the pranks and tricks are mean or nasty.

I don’t want to lie or say anything deceitful or hurtful – נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה

וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם

The word in the prayer has two roots: curse and lightness – KAL / MEKALEL. More than a reference to people who openly curse you, it includes those who make you feel light and small, whether it’s others or even things you say to yourself: don’t listen, let my soul be still – וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם

This is a prayer to overcome the feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that baselessly hold you back from doing things that could transform your life because you’re not ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness; help me not be moved by my own thoughts – וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם.

The Mishkan’s inauguration was accompanied by a seven-day festival. Right in the middle of the celebrations, Nadav and Avihu, Ahron’s oldest sons, great men who might have been leaders to the next generation, behaved inappropriately and died instantly in mysterious circumstances. When Ahron was informed, he was silent – vayidom ahron CITE.

In the face of disturbance, when people try to rock you, and the world shakes around you, may my soul remain still, silent, unmoved, and unphased – וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם

You’d never entertain the thought that you should never have murdered puppies and pushed over the elderly. Those are easy thoughts to reject because they have no basis in reality. It’s when we’re not sure if they’re true, or worse, when we’re sure they’re true, that we get thrown off balance.

We pray to resist the forces of instability; even if we have done things wrong – here and now, we’re trying to move forward and do better, and we ask for help – וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם

In a world that’s constantly moving, help me maintain balance and equilibrium – וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם.

Obsessive thoughts can plague us, wishing that we’d done something different, hoping that we were different, or worse, that we weren’t here at all.

In the face of unrest, with a mind that’s constantly swirling, we pray for stillness, for breath – וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם.

   וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה

Haters rarely hate you; far more often, they hate themselves because you’re showing them a reflection of what they wish they could be, and they don’t like feeling inadequate.

When people belittle or put you down, it’s because they think they gain social status by doing so. Far better for them to not be jealous, to think little or nothing of you, or not think of you at all; let them think of you as dirt – וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה.

The Ramban recommends that we take the view that you’re not better than anyone, and anyone can be better than you; get off your high horse and don’t think so highly of yourself, be humble and think of the battles everyone else is fighting – וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה.

Beyond that, dirt isn’t just something low that you step on; it is the source of life that all things grow from, where creatures find their food and is of central importance.

There are times you help people, and they are thankful; other times, they are ungrateful, and others still are angry and resentful. The Shabbos prayers include a blessing for the people who serve the public with faith – chol mi sheoskim btzarchei tzibbur bemunah CITE. Most people who bother wading into communal issues do it on faith and out of a desire to make things better rather than for recognition or honor; there is usually little to be had.

Perhaps this prayer is to be the kind of dirt that things grow from; even if people are ungrateful and tread on me, I want to produce for them – וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה.

This is a natural continuation of the Amida: to keep my tongue clean,  let my heart express my innermost desire, let my heart be still, and answer even if I’m unworthy, to help me be helpful to others even when I am unworthy – וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה.

psach libi btorasecha ubmitzvosech tirdof nafshi

The Sfas Emes teaches that the heart is naturally locked; if the heart is the seat of emotion, people are born selfish – the only thing in a locked heart is yourself, incapable of understanding truth. Torah unlocks the heart, opening the full range of feeling and proper sensitivity toward others.

Our sages teach that if the evil inclination is poison, the Torah is the antidote. In the absence of the Torah, chaos has free rein, but as our sages teach, stuck in the grips of the evil inclination, drag yourself to the study hall, and all will be well.

Before wisdom, a person is self-centered, but with wisdom, the heart can be consumed with a love and desire for mitzvos can see past itself – psach libi btorasecha ubmitzvosech tirdof nafshi

One of the things that happens when people visit the the concentration camps of Poland is that it puts problems into perspective, and you learn to see something differently. We pray for the clarity that comes from opening up our hearts – psach libi btorasecha ubmitzvosech tirdof nafshi

toarasecha

We want God’s Torah; there’s a Torah that isn’t. There’s a way of studying that is hollow and empty, a mirror of what you want it to say, finding what you want to believe.

(Shlomo)

Torah is designed to unlock our hearts; most people have experienced learning something that moved them, something real. Our sages encourage us to seek out the kind of learning that speaks to us – libi chefetz CITE

But as ever, prayer must paired with action and effort. You can pray a lifetime for God to open your heart to the Torah; do you have a regular learning schedule? You can wish all you want for your soul to pursue mitzvos; are you pursuing opportunities to help people?

The letters that precede the root of the Hebrew word for effort spell out the word for desire, which is emotive; what comes before effort is desire – SHTADL / RIGSHCA CITE. The letters that follow the word for effort spell out the word for truth – HAEMES.

(this is a big idea and deserves more treatment)

The heart starts locked in untruth, seeing only itself. The desire to see past oneself leads to an attempt for more, a push to do the right thing that, even if unsuccessful, leads to the truth. Desire and effort in the world of the spirit are always successful.

In the journey of our spirit, it is impossible that someone has tried and gotten nowhere because trying is all we can do. In spiritual terms, what sense would it make for God to put someone in a place they cannot understand, try as they might?

Our sages warn against believing someone who says they have searched for answers but found nothing. As the Kotzker put it, the searching is the finding.

We ask God for a little boost,  a headstart to give us some momentum and we will try harder from there  – psach libi btorasecha ubmitzvosech tirdof nafshi

עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ, עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן יְמִינֶךָ, עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן תּוֹרָתֶךָ, עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן קְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ. לְמַעַן יֵחָלְצוּן יְדִידֶיךָ

The Tur suggests that whoever recites this formulation merits to perceive the Divine Presence. (consider cutting, this adds nothing)

were not instructing god to act

were advocating a good reason

עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ

As we’ve frequently seen, God has many names, each being a different characterization of how God relates to us through varying modes of interaction. Here, we ask God to answer us for the sake of God’s name; not any individual name in particular, but all of them, the very notion of what God’s name represents, God’s reputation, for the sake of people who know there is a name. As the people who know there is a Creator and that there are expectations humanity must rise to meet, give us the things we need and help us do what needs to be done so that people recognize there is a Creator – עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ

There are many ways not to know God

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a long trend of secularisation, which, although bringing many advancements in the scientific, cultural, and intellectual arenas, has also caused some serious harm to the world, with the focus on rationality and empiricism sometimes leading to a dismissal of other ways of knowing and understanding the world, marginalizing the role of faith, morality, and spirituality ought to play in the healthy discourse of public life – עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ

A byproduct of enlightenment thinking is the colonialism and imperialism that has mostly died out, but also the inequality and exclusion that is still prominent in the world today. In a hypercapitalist world, the rich get richer, and society descends into a cutthroat competition of survival of the fittest to get ahead, a vile manifestation of social Darwinism.

In the Exodus story, the Pharoah of Ancient Egypt doesn’t know the God of Moses; he has never heard of Him before. Pharoah doesn’t recognize God’s authority to criticize his tyranny and oppression. He has the power and crown, so he gets to enslave and murder.

Centuries later, Titus, the Roman general who tore down Jerusalem, acknowledged God and openly challenged the Creator.

(Consider Yonah’s story – sailors know God but don’t practice til they are in mortal danger)

There are sadly some major public disgraces and scandals from time to time by people who look and appear to act extremely religious and observant – apart from and until the disgraceful and scandalous thing. That’s true, and it’s always been true. While Jewish organizations are working admirably to put safeguards in place against the kind of patterns that lead to scandals, you can’t fix human nature, and some people are going to drag God’s name through the mud.

So we pray for help balancing that out – עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ

We want so many things; hopefully, we want most of them for the right reasons! But for the ones we don’t, and especially those we do, isn’t it the most incredible sanctification when our prayers are answered? When that child is healed, when the woman gets married when that man gets back on his feet. When you pray for that, and it happens, doesn’t that make God look good? Doesn’t that make everyone feel good?

We want more of that – עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ

When things happen, we have all sorts of different attribution mechanisms. How did he make his money? Real Estate. Where? Office building in Manhattan. How? Interest rates, the lease terms, whatever it is. Substitute the event and the cause, and it’s the same; how did he lose the money? Market crashed. What’s wrong? A breakup, a test, finances, health.

These are all correct but are also misattributions. If there is a Creator with whom we are at the end of a lengthy interaction, it follows that the Creator is in control.

Tie everything back to God; the proximate cause may be whatever you say, but the ultimate cause is the Creator!

Smarts don’t equate to outcomes; confidence doesn’t equate to outcomes. Two hypothetical equal people with equal inputs would still have different outcomes; no given inputs can lead to any given outcomes, which is precisely the point. This is not a religious claim; it’s a statistical fact of mathematics. The difference between an atheist and a religious person is whether they label the deciding factor as chance, luck, and probability, or providence, mazel, and siyata dismaya; these are just different ways of saying the same thing.

We ask for God’s help seeing through all the labels; luck, charisma, charm, brains, confidence – עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ

עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן יְמִינֶךָ

As we’ve frequently encountered, we talk about parts of God in ways the human imagination can relate to, so God’s right arm is a way of speaking about God’s strength and power. Our sages teach that Jewish People left Egypt with God’s power, almost with a swagger, as if to say, somebody try and stop us!

There are times when God’s characteristics are more manifest or perhaps muted; more kindness or more judgment, other times less.

But there are times when God’s power is suppressed, pulled back, and diminished; this is a prayer to unshackle the right hand, to mute judgment, and for kindness to dominate with power – עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן יְמִינֶךָ.

עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן קְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ

We ask God to answer us for the sake of what is holy, separate, and distinct. In a world where the well-beaten path, the norm, and what is natural are not aligned with God’s vision for the world, answer our prayer.

Help us bring distinction to this world –  עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן קְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ

(shlomo)

עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן תּוֹרָתֶךָ

(shlomo)

When Yakov was on his deathbed, he blessed his sons, and he gave Yosef the land of Shechem, which he says he acquired with his sword and bow, the plain reading of the Genesis story – בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי. Onkelos translates this as prayers and requests; Yakov’s weapons are his prayers – BAKASHOS. Fascinatingly, the initial letters of the four things for whose sake we ask God to act form the same word – קַשְׁתִּי / קְדֻשָּׁתֶךָ שְׁמֶךָ תּוֹרָתֶךָ יְמִינֶךָ

lmaan yecholatzun yediach hosia yemimncha vaneini

When righteous people die, it atones the sins of a generation. The Yaavetz notes that it is intuitive that righteous people bear the sins of their time because they are in charge, so it’s on them; it’s their fault if people don’t mend their ways.

This line is an acknowledgment of personal responsibility. For the part that’s on me, don’t blame anyone else; release anyone else from fault.

vaaneini

With one of the most important and powerful words, we close the Amida.

And answer me too – vaaneini.

The righteous deserve it, but what about me? What about my voice, my prayer, me with my sins, my mistakes, my flaws?

Please answer my prayer, too – vaaneini

However inadequate, I said my prayers with the Jewish People; this is me on my own, the very last word. Answer me too – vaaneini

Verse with names

Some have a custom of saying verses containing the letters of your name. As Rokeach teaches, praying three times a day parallels three meals daily: soul food and nourishment. The repetition of these verses carves your name into your soul in some way that lingers hereafter and reflects your efforts positively.

יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ צוּרִי וְגוֹאֲלִי

This verse contains ten words; the tenth letter appears ten times – י x י.

(Shlomo)

something about 10 to the power of 10 I didn’t follow

secret name

42 letters in the verse

many permutations

Three steps back

Our sages teach that early in Nebuchadnezzar’s career, he served as secretary and scribe to the Babylonian emperor. Nebuchadnezzar was out of the office one day, and another of the royal scribes dispatched a letter to Hizkiyahu, the Jewish king. Returning to work and reviewing correspondence, Nebuchadnezzar read the letter: “Greetings to King Hizkiyahu! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to the great God!”

Nebuchadnezzar objected, saying it was insulting to say the great God yet mention Him last and insisted the letter be redrafted. The only trouble was that the letter had been sealed and the messenger had already been dispatched to Jerusalem, so Nebuchadnezzar ran out to call the messenger back and redo the letter, running three steps to catch the messenger before he was restrained by the angel Gabriel because one step further would have granted his merit and ability to inflict harm immeasurably. Our sages credit those three steps for his rise to power.

Taking three steps back at the conclusion of the Amida can be seen as a form of rectification, neutralizing the negative impact of Nebuchadnezzar’s merit, a gesture of undoing or correcting potential spiritual harm, and adapting his method for ourselves.

We open the Amida taking three steps backward in recognition that the momentum in our lives isn’t truly ours; we surrender to the faith that God will lead us where we need to go and that, ultimately, our successes, failures, and outcomes are dictated by external forces.

Having concluded our prayers, we take three steps forward, back into the the profane domain of the real world, coming full circle, right back to where you started, only things are different now. Having stepped back to reflect on our place in the divine scheme, we can now step back into our lives, hopefully with newfound perspective and insight.

Returning to daily life with a new perspective, with new clarity and consciousness, you can face up to your challenges in a new way, and maybe something different will happen this time. Or perhaps next time!

(this is same as hashem sefasai)

By returning to where we were before, perhaps we are acting out what we hope to get from our prayer, seeing that God was right where I was, only I wasn’t where He was. I had to step away for a bit to see God was always there. The Mona Lisa is heralded as the greatest artwork a human has produced; if you stuck your nose to the canvas, you wouldn’t really be able to see the masterpiece for what it is. It’s cordoned off to the optimal vantage point, twenty or so feet away. Sometimes, you need to step back for a moment to gain perspective on where we were.

Prayer Isn’t Enough

The crescendo of the Exodus came with the decisive miracle at the Red Sea. The ocean parted, giving the desperate Jewish People safe passage while simultaneously obliterating their great tormentors in one fell swoop. The Splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most captivating and magical moments in the entire Torah, and prayer plays a prominent role in the build-up:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם  נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־ה – As Pharaoh drew near, the Jewish People caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Jewish People cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

But surprisingly, and quite unlike how we might expect, this prayer is not well received:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Why are you crying out to Me!? Tell the Jewish People to get going!!” (14:15)

With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and everything they own. They have no boats and cannot swim to safety; just over the horizon, there is a hostile force in hot pursuit. By any reasonable standards, they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so they cry out to God for help; we cannot doubt that their fears and tears are genuine.

If crying to God for help is what you are supposed to do, why did God get annoyed at their prayer?

At the Red Sea, God urges Moshe to have his people quickly get a move on. The Midrash expands this discussion; God rebuked Moshe that it was an inappropriate moment for lengthy prayers – there was danger close, and it was time for decisive action.

They cried out to God as the last resort of their ancestors, a weak effort that betrayed deep fear and insecurity and the cynical despair of helplessness that all was lost. It was an inferior, or at least suboptimal, immature prayer that betrayed a lack of belief, both in God and in themselves, that there was nothing they could do! Only they were wrong to think there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be equally wrong for thinking prayer could ever work in a vacuum.

They should have believed enough in their prayer to stop praying and get moving, but they were frozen and paralyzed.

Maybe that’s what our efforts have to look like to give our prayers a hook to latch on to – even when God promises.

God didn’t want their prayers at the Red Sea because it wasn’t time to pray; it was time to act! But they couldn’t because they had given up and were consumed with fear. Perhaps that lends enduring power to the legacy of Nachson ben Aminadav, whom our sages herald for clambering into the water when he could not yet know what would happen because just maybe there was one last thing to try before giving up, finding room for a ray of hope amid the clouds of despair – a hope that drove action.

The biggest challenge to our faith and belief is time; that we give up prematurely.

By wading into the water, Nachshon showed people who thought they had reached the outer limit of what they could do and revealed that the boundary was just a little further than they’d thought. They’d stopped at the shore, but he boldly and bravely stepped into the impossible and waded up to his neck without waiting for instructions, leading by example in the face of uncertainty, the quality of his tribe, Yehuda. And when he did that, he sparked salvation, upending the natural order, and the ocean split for all.

Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation at why they cry out – they are parked on the beach, crying, but what exactly do they expect God to do with that?! We can almost hear God begging for something to work with – tell them to get up and get going!

Don’t just hope, don’t just pray. Alongside your hopes and prayers, you must live and act with faith.

You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t be meaningful if you don’t give your partner attention. That’s the way the world works; if you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed.

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן – He Who makes peace in His high heavens – may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel and say – Amen!

The yearning for ultimate and final peace is the last word of Jewish prayers and has been since antiquity; it is a core Jewish value reflecting the profound dreams of the prophets. Love and the pursuit of peace is one of Judaism’s fundamental ideals and is a near-universal characteristic in our pantheon of heroes – בקש שלום ורדפהו.

Avos d’Rabbi Nosson suggests that the mightiest heroism lies not in defeating your foes but in turning enemies into friends. The Midrash says that the world can only persist with peace, and the Gemara teaches that all of Torah exists to further peace – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם. Peace features prominently in the Priestly Blessing, and the visions of peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel – וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ / יִשָּׂא ה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped that nobody can bring you peace but yourself. When you feel secure, you’ll have security. It takes benevolence, confidence, and unshakeable strength and power; those come from within. If you do not have peace, you are not yet at peace.

There is an excellent reason that envy figures as one of the most important things God has to say to humans – וְלֹא תַחְמֹד. As our Sages guided us, who is wealthy? One who celebrates and takes joy in what he has – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ. One interpretation even inverts the plain reading, from celebrating what you have to celebrate what he has – בְּחֶלְקוֹ. Someone else’s prosperity and success don’t make your own any less likely, so be happy when someone else gets a win because yours is no further away. The Ksav Sofer highlights that this is the Torah’s blessing of peace, an internal peace of being satisfied and living with security, happy for both yourself and for others – וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹׂבַע וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח.

If we value and desire peace, we must first regulate and then free ourselves from looking at others with grudges, grievances, and jealousy. As one comedian said, the only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. When other people’s achievements and success no longer threaten us, we can develop lasting and peaceful co-existence and harmony. The differences are still there, but it’s not the other person that changes at all; it’s how you look at them. Your dream of peace starts with you, and it’s an important step that bridges the world we live in with the ideal world of tomorrow. If you cannot accept others, it’s because you haven’t yet accepted yourself.

What better blessing could there be than to live in balanced harmony with yourself, to be completely secure and at peace? To wholly embrace your differences with your spouse, parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, community, colleagues, and ultimately, everyone you meet? And if we infused our notion of peace with any momentum, maybe the whole world could experience it, too.

God can make peace between abstract opposites, bringing all the different forces of nature into harmony: light and dark, chaos and order, justice and mercy, life and death. They coexist in their roles as complementary parts of reciprocal interactions.

Peace is possible, and we can achieve it; it is something humans can say Amen to, that what is said is true.

May we live to see the day that it is true, where we can say yes, that happened, that was answered. That sickness is no more, sanctity and purpose are everywhere, and hunger and poverty have been eradicated. That there is abundance for all, that war is a thing of the past, that Mashiach has come, and God will lovingly hold up thousands of years worth of billions of people’s tears and prayers that were answered, and we will all say, Amen!

Sim Shalom – Peace

22 minute read
Straightforward

שִׂים שָׁלוֹם טוֹבָה וּבְרָכָה חַיִים חֵן וָחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ, בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ כִּי בְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ נָתַתָּ לָּנוּ ה’ אֱלֹקינוּ תּוֹרַת חַיִּים וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וּצְדָקָה וּבְרָכָה וְרַחֲמִים וְחַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם, וְטוֹב יִהְיֶה בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְבָרְכֵנוּ וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת־כָּל־עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל־עֵת וּבְכָל־שָׁעָה בִּשְׁלוֹמֶךָ בְּרוֹב עוֹז וְשָׁלוֹם. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ הַמְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשָּׁלוֹם –

Grant peace, goodness, and blessing, life favor, kindness and compassion upon us and upon all Israel, Your people.

Bless us, our Father, all of us as one with the light of Your countenance. For by the light of Your countenance You gave us Adonoy our God, a Torah of life and the love of kindliness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.

And may it be good in Your sight to bless us and to bless Your people Israel, at all times and at every moment with Your peace (with much strength and peace). Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who blesses His people Israel with peace.

Peace is important

Our sages teach that peace is the ultimate container for blessing; without peace, there’s nothing. It’s something we ask for every day, the conclusion of the Amida, every prayer, and even how we greet people – Shalom!

But isn’t that also true of wisdom? Or health?

שִׂים שָׁלוֹם

We ask God to place or grant peace on us, not to make peace for us or give it. The language of placing or granting suggests something done gently – sama bamizbeach

placed by Hashem – bnachas shelo yifaseh.

Sometimes, the absence of conflict is the least difficult option, but that’s hardly peace.

Peace doesn’t mean a lack of conflict; it doesn’t mean turning the other cheek and suffering in silence. Your non-response to conflict contributes to a lack of overt hostility that is superficial and only a negative peace at best. Sure, there is no external conflict, but everyone recognizes that conflict is there, even if it’s unspoken and even if it’s only internal. It’s a position of discomfort and resentment – possibly only unilateral – and it may genuinely be too tricky or not worth the headache to attempt to resolve. Be that as it may, that is not what peace is; it’s not a state of blessing at all. It’s the fragile status quo that lasts only as long as it is sufficiently tolerable, but it’s a lingering poison that slowly suffocates; it’s only a ceasefire or stalemate; it’s certainly not peace.

Peace isn’t the lack of conflict that stems from being weak and harmless. It’s not good morality if you don’t fight when you’re meek and harmless. You haven’t made that choice; you simply have no alternatives. Pirkei Avos is dismissive and disdainful of people who don’t stand up for themselves – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. In a world of pacifists, a bully with a stick would rule the world. There’s nothing moral about being harmless.

We pray for God to bring peace, yet an imposed peace is not peace at all. There is a straight line from the peace imposed on Germany after World War One to the causes that directly to the sparks that lit World War Two, scarred our history, and burned continents. Peace can’t be forced; peace must be gentle – שִׂים שָׁלוֹם

When Jewish People are threatened, they gather and unite, but that isn’t peace or unity; that’s also forced and simply an alliance of political necessity. After the Exodus and as the Jewish People approached the Land of Israel, bordering nation-states were alarmed, and the tribal chiefs of Moav and Midyan struck an alliance to stop the Jewish People’s so far unstoppable march toward their lands. Moav and Midyan were sworn enemies, but a common thread brought them together; we’d expect that if they had been successful, they’d have resumed hostilities soon after. That’s not peace; that’s just a temporary partnership of convenience.

Siblings that spend time in close proximity bicker and fight; as they grow older and move out of the parental home, they fight less. That’s also not peace. They fight less because there is more distance now.

When you shut out someone you were once close with and don’t fight with them, that’s also not peace; that, too, is distance.

Peace is something specific; as the Ohr HaChaim notes, the word for peace is cognate to wholesomeness and perfection, a holistic and symbiotic harmony of constituent parts – שָּׁלוֹם / שלימות.

Fighting is rooted in falling short of that ideal, fractured and insecure individuals fighting for control, dominance, and superiority.

How does God do something without doing it?

If I want burgers for dinner and you want pizza, we disagree. If we go to the store and they’re all out of pizza, we might agree to have burgers, but that’s not peace. If we pick up pizza and burgers, that’s also not peace; everyone getting what they want doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

Peace means working through the issues peacefully; God can grant us the environment to create peace.

When two kids fight over something, like who gets to sit next to dad, the family might devise a system, taking turns or paper rock scissors. But in reality, the argument isn’t about sitting next to dad; it’s that the kid who loses out feels unloved. If dad pulls the kid aside and gives them some tender love, care, and proper attention, they wouldn’t feel unloved or jealous; they wouldn’t care about sitting next to dad one particular time. If no one feels badly pushed away anymore, each one allows the other to occupy as much space as they need; you can give the other person all they need to resolve the issue.

Think about a conflict you’re involved in or aware of, personally, in the family, in the community, and what the causes are.

When Dayan Fischer was the rav in Zichron Moshe, an unwell man walked to the front of the shul and sat in the rabbi’s seat at the beginning of services. People asked him to move, and he refused. Then they tried to remove him physically, but he got agitated and was too strong for them, and he fought them off. Bemused at this, Rav Fischer walked up to the man, whispered something in his ear, and stepped back; the man promptly stood up and sat in the shul’s back corner. When asked what he had said, Rav Fischer said he’d told the man that the rabbi sits in the back corner on the right; the man just wanted to feel like the rabbi.

People want things, and they’ll fight for what they want. To make peace, you need to find a way to solve problems creatively and let them get what they want and for you to get what you want.

It’s no different from the general approach and orientation to prayer suggested here; it is disingenuous to raise your eyes and heart to heaven and pour your heart out for God to figure it all out for you. A child says give me, give me, give me! Mature adults understand the need to put in the effort to work for the things we want; mature prayers emerge from experienced efforts.

Peace is not simply the absence of conflict; it is the absence of conflict through resolving the issue at the heart of conflict and addressing the deficiency or lack, which results in wholesome perfection – sim shalom – giving inner wholeness and inner peace.

Perfection – שלימות

This blessing is also a prayer for perfection. Regarding character traits, our sages speak of measurements, middos – MIDDOS CITE. Much like ingredients in a recipe, there isn’t one you want in zero or unlimited amounts; you need the right measure of salt, pepper, chili, and garlic, or the recipe is a disaster.

There is such a thing as being too kind; our sages say that when someone is kind to the cruel, they end up being cruel to the kind. In that instance, the kindness isn’t kindness at all but a misguided distortion of morality. Children require a balance of kindness and discipline; children who only get sweets and toys end up spoiled.

There is a place for anger; what if you never got angry, even in the face of the worst crimes imaginable? If an adult beats up a child in front of you, is it something to be proud of that you’ve worked on yourself not to get angry? You absolutely should get angry!

The model of wholesomeness and perfection requires balance – shleimus. When a person is miserable, they are off balance.

It’s important to understand that everyone has their own balance, their recipe with different ingredients and measurements.

One of the great adventures in the story of our life is to figure out how to express those traits in the right way; a person with a natural predisposition towards kindness isn’t supposed to find a way to minimize that kindness; they are supposed to figure out how to channel in the highest and best way.

People with a propensity towards severity don’t serve themselves well by stifling themselves and finding ways to maximize kindness; they’re supposed to exercise balance in a way that requires judgment and discernment.

A person will never feel balance until they understand their personal characteristics, tendencies and predispositions – their middos.

While the post-war era of Jewish education is among the most prolific in terms of output and reach, one severe limitation has been the rigidity of formulaic cookie-cutter systems that take a one-size-fits-all approach. If you fit, you’re great and belong, but if you’re a round peg in a square hole, many individuals have been squeezed out, left behind, or had to fight hard for their piece of wholesomeness – שִׂים שָׁלוֹם

The school might try to say it’s a shortcoming in the student, but it may just as well be a shortcoming in the school. Some schools try to stamp out people with learning differences, and sometimes, these aren’t disabilities; they can be superpowers with negative externalities. There seems to be a movement towards giving these extraordinary people the resources they need to express themselves and giving them space and freedom to grow – שִׂים שָׁלוֹם

But it’s so much easier and better when it’s not forced. We want it granted and placed. Maneuavered, manipulated, gently influeced – שִׂים שָׁלוֹם.

In the form of books, influences, teachers, friends, and people we need to meet when we need them.

שִׂים שָׁלוֹם טוֹבָה

We don’t just wish for peace; we need peace that is good because not all peace is.

As the proverb teaches, there is a time to make a peace and a time for battle – eis shalom eish milchama. Sometimes, a compromise betrays a fundamental value, leaving a lingering sense of loss and regret; those are the battles that must be fought, and conceding is never worthwhile. In the leadup to World War Two, the Allied leaders misguidedly tried to appease Hitler by allowing Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia without the Czechoslovak government’s participation in the talks and effectively sacrificing Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty in the hopes of securing peace. The Munich Agreement was easy; it wasn’t good and didn’t last. It has since become synonymous with the dangers of appeasement when it involves the sacrifice of core principles and the rights of others, highlighting that peace at any price can ultimately lead to far greater costs.

We need peace that is good – שִׂים שָׁלוֹם טוֹבָה

וּבְרָכָה

Blessing is a way is saying abundance, growth, more – ribui CITE. Rashi teaches that Genesis starts with the letter Bet because it starts with the same letter that the word blessing does – bracha / bereishis. The Ibn Ezra questions this teaching, noting that all sorts of plain and ordinary words start with different letters, like the word for animal – beheima CITE.

The Maharal explains that Rashi’s teaching isn’t that the letter Bet starts the word for blessing; the letter Bet is the definition of blessing; it cuts to the heart of how blessing works, the nature of the thing itself. The numerological value of the letters that spell the word for blessing all start with – beis reish caf,  2 20 200 CITE. The numerological quality of the number two is that it signifies multiple, more, and many, amplifying what is present.

There is a legendary story about the prophet Elisha, who stayed in a poor widow’s house while traveling. A creditor was pressuring her, but all she had was a little flask of oil; Elisha told her to collect as many pots and pans and bottles and containers as possible and borrow as many as she could from her neighbors, and he told her to pour the flask of oil into the containers – it didn’t empty until every container was full. She had enough to pay her debt and provide for her family’s needs.

When Yakov blesses his sons on his deathbed, he identifies a quality and identifying characteristic in each child and blesses them with expansiveness, with enlargement and extension of the gifts they already possess.

(like idea of tzemach

like idea of samuch min haayin

like not counting klal yisrael)

חַיִים

We pray for life.

But not just breath and a heartbeat, but a life that goes beyond a lifetime, a life of eternity, through connection to the Torah, a life that goes on.

Beyond that, we want a life of meaning, a life that matters, a life that makes us feel alive, with liveliness and vitality – chiyus CITE. Sometimes, we feel fired up, inspired, motivated, and connected to the universe and everything; other times, we feel alienated and disconnected.

We pray for life – חַיִים.

חֵן

We pray for grace and charm, finding favor in the eyes of God and man.

Far more subtle than physical attractiveness, grace and charm are invisible qualities that are distinct but often overlap, enhancing how an individual is perceived and how they influence the world around them.

Grace embodies elegance, poise, and kindness in behavior or manner, reflecting an inner harmony and balance associated with a certain serenity and thoughtfulness, a gentle strength that enables individuals to navigate complex situations with ease and compassion, an inherent beauty or soul radiance.

Charm is the ability to attract or delight others through one’s personality, involving a magnetic appeal, charisma, energy, or warmth that draws people in, creating connections and fostering relationships.

Esther is described as graceful and charming; there was something about her that was captivating, a twinkle in her eye that captured hearts and minds – חֵן

At Sinai, the Torah describes how the Jewish People camped at the foot of the mountain, waiting for the hallowed moment they would receive the Torah – vayichan shem – camped. Our sages note that the Torah describes the verb for camping in the singular, teaching that the people camped as one person, with one heart and one mind. In a complementary teaching, our sages reread the word with different vowels; they loved each other and saw grace in each other eyes – vyichan vayichein CITE.

Sharing hopes and dreams, people’s hearts can beat together, and they can truly love one another. Without closing my eyes to your flaws and knowing my imperfections, I can recognize that there is something truly beautiful about you. If I can see your quality and you can see mine, we will have peace; if I recognize and see my own, I will know peace.

Grace and charm get you further than you might expect. We pray for grace and charm, finding favor in the eyes of God and man.

וָחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים

On its face, kindness and compassion are mutually exclusive sentiments; you can express one or the other, but they can’t coexist. When a wealthy individual expresses distress over what we might consider first-world problems, a common reaction might be dismissal or lack of empathy, perceiving these complaints as unworthy of genuine compassion given their relative prosperity. Yet, from a divine perspective, God can show compassion for their distress, understanding it within the broader context of human experience and extending kindness irrespective of their material wealth. Every individual’s feelings and struggles are valid and deserving of acknowledgment and compassion, regardless of their external circumstances – וָחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים.

Conversely, when someone is visibly suffering or in need, human beings are quick to feel compassion, recognizing the immediate need to alleviate their pain. However, this individual might yearn not just for compassion but for genuine human kindness that acknowledges them as a person beyond their current state of need, for interactions that bring love and warmth without the shadow of pity. True support encompasses seeing and treating individuals with dignity and care that transcends their immediate circumstances – וָחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים

The divine combination of compassion and kindness transcends human limitations because God’s desire to give is not based on human need or worthiness; it is a fundamental expression of divine love at the root of all existence – Olam Chesed Yibaneh CITE”.

Predating Creation, self-generating and infinite, we ask God to share these with us in peace, and also with those who don’t deserve our peace: the hurtful people in the world who will never learn, will never change, and who will never be the one to make peace. We pray for the kindness of being able to have peace with those people as well – וָחֶסֶד.

Sometimes, kindness isn’t enough to get to a place where we can make peace; other times, a person has done something so awful they don’t deserve kindness. Faced with someone whose actions make them seem undeserving of kindness, the challenge lies in finding the strength to extend compassion. Seeing past the conflict and recognizing the inherent brokenness, emotional fractures, or the depth of another’s flaws can awaken a sense of compassion within us. How bad they must feel, how unhappy they will always be, how they will alienate every bit of goodness out of their life; and if they don’t feel bad at all, how sad that is, how terrible it is to be so irreparable broken and damaged – וְרַחֲמִים.

The coexistence of kindness and compassion challenges us to embody these divine attributes, extending compassion and kindness even in the most challenging circumstances, bringing peace into our lives – וָחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים.

עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ

For most of history, the utopian ideal that most cultures and societies strived for has been domination, subjugation, and victory; the pages of history are written in the blood and tears of conflict. In stark contrast, Judaism’s religious texts overwhelmingly endorse compassion and peace; love and the pursuit of peace is one of Judaism’s fundamental ideals and is a near-universal characteristic in our pantheon of heroes – בקש שלום ורדפהו. R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the utopian ideal of peace is one of Judaism’s significant original revolutionary contributions.

But this blessing doesn’t fantasize about a dream of world peace, a world where the nation beat swords to plowshares; it doesn’t talk in abstract platitudes.

It is a prayer for peace for ourselves and the entire Jewish People.

Human relationships form in concentric circles. I am at the center, then perhaps my spouse and children, then parents and siblings, then friends and extended family, then community and acquaintances, then my city, my country, continent, species, and planet.

This blessing acknowledges a more localized version of the Jewish People – ourselves; this brings an abstract ideal of loving an idea into something tangible and practical, the humans around you. World peace is a lovely idea, but in the real world, it starts with individuals, human to human. A full half of the Ten Commandments are grounded in interpersonal regulations – בין אדם לחברו. It’s not enough to love humanity in the abstract; you have to love people in particular – your annoying neighbor and the guy who never stops talking – עָלֵינוּ.

The Torah and this blessing expect us to expand our consciousness so that the circles around us matter enough to impact our well-being – עָלֵינוּ.

Every time there is some kind of local, national, or global crisis, leaders inevitably get up and speak about the need to make peace between our community and their community, our people and their people, our ways and their ways, as if peace already existed between the people sitting in the same room! Peace is complex, and it doesn’t happen by itself; it’s not something you do with others; it’s something we need to do with and among ourselves, here and now – עָלֵינוּ.

בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד

We pray for many things: happiness, health, children, wealth, and spirituality. But we want those blessings to be rooted in unity, not division –  בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד

While it’s good to try to be a better human than you used to be, it’s never good to act better than your friends; we don’t want our blessings to come between us. When someone becomes successful and wealthy, if they become snobby and stop hanging out with their old friends, their success isn’t a blessing.

It doesn’t have to be contentious or divisive when someone becomes more observant or religious. There are ways of being with and around people in your life who want different things and respect each other’s differences; blessings rooted in unity, not division –  בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד

I am blessed; I don’t want people to be threatened by my personal, professional, or spiritual attainments. I don’t want them to be insecure or jealous of what I have; I don’t want my parents, friends, or siblings to feel like they’re not good enough. I also want to celebrate and be happy for the blessings other people receive – בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד

Zooming out beyond the Jewish People as part of ourselves is ourselves as part of the Jewish People.

The Kol Nidrei Prayer on Yom Kippur includes a line that grants the congregation permission to pray with sinners and wrongdoers together as one people. God asks us to be one people; we ask God to pray as one people. There are things we can’t get on our own, things we don’t deserve on our own; we ask God for a blessing as part of the Jewish People – בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד.

בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ כִּי בְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ

This prayer asks for blessing with the light on God’s face.

When we speak of light, it’s a way of describing an effect; light feels warm and good; it’s something nice that we associate with smiling and feeling happy.

Asking for blessings with the light on God’s face is the metaphor we use for the mechanism of things that are nice and good.

As we’ve frequently encountered, this is a complex metaphor. God doesn’t have a face, and faces don’t generate light. But when we talk about parts of God, it’s in ways the human imagination can relate to, so God’s arm is a way of speaking about power. In this instance, the face is seen as the mirror of the soul, a space that reveals the inner world; we may conceal our true thoughts and feelings by hiding our natural expressions, but

sometimes, we distort our face so it doesn’t, but its natural state is to display our inner feelings.

Our sages teach that this blessing is an extension of the Priestly Blessing, which this blessing follows in the public repetition. That blessing speaks of God’s face shining us with grace – yaer hashem panav eilecha vichuneka.

When we speak of a blessing with God’s face lit up, it’s a request for blessing from a place of happiness and joy, where the outer and inner worlds align with light and joy.

Our sages teach that God created the universe with no cause other than the quality of kindness – olam chesed yibaneh CITE.

And yet, we don’t live in a world of rainbows and butterflies, lollipops and unicorns. We live in a world of pain and suffering, too. Pleasure can theoretically be reduced to two chemicals in the brain, dopamine, and serotonin; if God truly wanted to show kindness, couldn’t God have made a universe of creatures swimming in pleasure chemicals? Psychology teaches that we only feel good if we earn that reward by accomplishing a goal, but the question remains: why couldn’t God give us the feeling of satisfaction of achieving a goal?

The Ramchal explains that any manner of these variant forms of Creation falls short because they would fail to create the mutual relationship God desires. God’s greatest gift isn’t pleasure or happiness; it’s a connection and relationship with the Creator; that’s what the World to Come us, and that’s why free will exists and is at the heart of humanity, Judaism, and spirituality.

Although God shapes the universe out of kindness, our sages teach that God shrouds kindness in judgment; it must be so for humans to earn their keep. Embedded in this teaching is an inner and outer desire, an inner desire of abundant kindness and an outer wrapping of judgment, pain, and problems. What we subjectively experience as real and painful can be something else entirely at the root of existence.

When there’s a disconnect, that’s never a good thing. No one ever wants to hear their suffering is redemptive or glorious. So we ask for blessings from the light on God’s face, where the outer and inner worlds align with light and joy.

Not bor panecha

Some blessings are missing some light.

Our sages understand the Exodus story as an emergency measure; it wasn’t yet time, and the people were unworthy, and much of the Exodus story happens in darkness. But God had made a promise to Avraham and was going to keep His word – Baruch shomer havtochaso CITE.

We want our blessings to come with light, clarity, and illumination. We want to see and understand how all the parts of the puzzle come together.

נָתַתָּ לָּנוּ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ תּוֹרַת חַיִּים

In giving the Jewish People the Torah, the blueprint of existence, God shared an instruction manual for proper living him, the way to manifest and participate in some small way in God’s qualities and bring light into Creation –  נָתַתָּ לָּנוּ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ תּוֹרַת חַיִּים

But more than giving us those things, once upon a time, God gave us Himself –  נָתַתָּ לָּנוּ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ.

When a young couple gets married, the groom gives the bride a ring, and the bride might give the groom a watch, but the greatest gift they can give is themselves to each other.

Many marriage laws and customs are derived from the encounter at Sinai; God gave Himself to the Jewish People through the Living Torah and a love of kindness. Spirituality is not an esoteric thing, not an arcane search, not a boring compendium of information and rules. Spirituality is the gift of learning how to be divine, the secret to unlocking the immortal soul, and how to be fragments of God that never dies; loving and obsessing over kindness is one way.

(gmach stories needed)

תּוֹרַת חַיִּים – The Torah is alive

The Torah is a spark of the Divine; it follows that it possesses some powerful, although sometimes paradoxical, properties. The Maariv prayer eloquently refers to the Torah as the essence of our existence—”ki heim chayeinu.” However, this intrinsic vitality contrasts starkly with the moment at Sinai, where the Jewish People died upon hearing God’s voice, only to be revived by the words themselves, which are restorative to the soul – “toras hashem temima meshivas nafesh”.

Our bodies possess a similar property; when cancer cells develop that can threaten survival, the immune system will send T cells to meticulously identify and hopefully eliminate the cancerous cells – a destruction for healing. Chemotherapy works similarly, poisoning the body in a calculated intervention to heal the body by destroying harmful elements.

The Torah targets parts of the human personality that are less than ideal, breaking them down only to rebuild us in a more refined form. It is through enduring and embracing this process, challenging as it may be, that we find a deeper, more vital existence. Just as our bodies can emerge stronger from the battle against illness, so too can our spirits find rejuvenation and life through the transformative power of the Torah if we commit to its teachings and allow them to guide our renewal.

Torah that comes alive

There are things that are boring, sad, and annoying, and there are things that make us come alive, things that are exciting and fill us with life.

We pray for the Torah to be one of those things.

What kind of person would you be if kindness was one of the things that made you feel most alive?

The bad things in life would be much easier to avoid if they felt like death.

Some people love to help others. They are born to volunteers to visit the sick and the old, feed the poor, and teach the unaffiliated, but it doesn’t come naturally to some people.

The Torah says to love God and your neighbor, but those aren’t laws legislating emotion; they command action. Do what you would have done if you felt that way as if you felt that way and had that emotion. Sticking to a task without motivation often winds up generating motivation later. Once you’re invested in an activity, person, or thing, you care more about it. When you’re paying for a dinner you’re not especially hungry for, you’ll force yourself to eat a bit more; if you’re at a friend’s wedding, you would never because it’s not your problem.

(Joey Rosenfeld as if)

We don’t want to be cruel; we must be invested in kindness. Loving kindness has nothing to do with its visibility or glamour but with loving it for itself, including the kindness no one cares about. It means loving washing the dishes so someone else won’t have to, picking up the tissue on the floor, and taking the trash out. It includes the popular things everyone has a soft spot for, like caring for special needs children, but the point is it doesn’t end there; what about someone not young or old, not poor, sick, or dying? What about someone middle-aged and just a little uncomfortable? Someone who loves kindness is excited to help that person from their innermost being.

Torah isn’t enough.

We pray for a Torah that’s alive, pulsating with life.

The Zohar teaches that at Sinai, all souls were gathered and present, and each soul perceived the Torah to its utmost depth to the absolute capacity each soul is capable of. There are Torah teachings and classes that fill us with life. If the Torah were truly alive to us, loving kindness would follow naturally.

In a vibrant world with so many things vying for our attention, corporate psychologists have determined that marketing campaigns have a maximum of eight minutes to occupy the human attention span. Marketers have optimized what colors catch the eye and which emotions to stir to provoke the desired behaviors.

The Gateshead Rav said that we have to give our children what the world will provide them in a kosher way, or they will go out and get it in the most nonkosher way.

If you had the best teacher or teachings, but they weren’t relatable, who would want to learn? The method matters, the medium matters, and the truth isn’t enough –  toras emes CITE.

We pray for a Torah that’s alive – toras chaim.

One time, Shlomo was on his way to teach a class, and he was running late when an Israeli collector stopped him and asked for a minute. He told Shlomo his story, which was a tale of woe and pain, but ten minutes long or more, and Shlomo felt terrible for him, gave him money, and moved on.

We don’t want kindness that is reluctant, begrudging, or unwilling. We don’t want the watered-down version; we want the real thing.

When Yitzchak prepares to die, he asks Esau to bring the food he loves so he can bless Esau with all his heart and soul, his entire being and essence – lmaan avarchecha nafshi

We pray for Torah and kindness that we are comfortable doing and love to do.

וּצְדָקָה וּבְרָכָה וְרַחֲמִים וְחַיִּים

We translate Tzedaka as charity and righteousness, which seem mutually exclusive; is someone owed something, in which case it is righteous to return, or are they not owed anything, in which case it would be charitable?

The Ibn Ezra translates it as something more like the act of equity; when the rich share with the poor, it equalizes inequity – צְדָקָה.

The Rokeach suggests that these requests aren’t separate; they’re all one. If we could discover a life of Torah and a Torah that is alive, we’d find kindness, charity, blessings, compassion, life, and all the rest; if Torah excited us and felt alive, everything else would follow: kindness, compassion, and charity would be natural.

Charity isn’t just giving money; it’s any leveling of the playing field. If someone lacks anything at all and you can help, that’s charity. Beyond financial means, remember that your time and expertise must be spent charitably as well, whether it’s homework, introductions, business contacts, or tips.

When someone is floundering spiritually, helping them is charity, including someone you perceive as superior, be it a teacher, mentor, or parent. Charity doesn’t make you better than another; there is no hierarchy or verticality in helping – it just means you have some more stability. Not even more objective stability in life; only a little more than they have right now, which is what you can share, and that’s enough. You know who they are, and you can share the place you see them from.

וְרַחֲמִים

Although we have already prayed for grace and mercy, the first was the kind everybody needs; this is another kind, the kind that comes from the light of God’s face – כִּי בְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.

Our sages teach that in moments we are stuck, we have a key; God gives us opportunities, and the qualities with which we navigate our challenges feed back into our lives as problems or solutions – nasan lecha rachmim vrichamecha

(Peterson)

Our sages teach that there is a kind of reflexive mirroring to helping others, that when you help someone with their problem, it somehow helps solve yours. If you help someone get married, it enables you to get married or makes your marriage smoother. When you pray for someone else, your prayers get answered as well.

A great rabbi once visited London and took some meetings, and Shlomo spent the night translating for him. People poured out their hearts the entire night and received blessings, but the sob stories shook Shlomo.

A person can experience pain that isn’t directly his; they have still endured pain. When you give someone whose child is sick some money for their care, you are invested in their recovery. When you help a young couple get married, you have bought into the success of their marriage.

Although we carry so much of our lives on our own, there are little fragments that others can share indirectly; we ask for opportunities to be merciful, where we can help someone with a problem. We ask for a heart big enough to include someone else’s problem so I can deserve more, so I can change my nature to be more naturally kind and good, and help more people – וְרַחֲמִים.

וְחַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם

We take life for granted; there is no prayer or blessing for life.

There is a blessing for healing, but this blessing may be the first mention of life; the life we want is peaceful –  וְחַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם

Quite arguably, life is the opposite of peace. Life is a war! Do we choose what’s easy or what’s right? Spiritual or mundane? Body or soul?

We pray for a life where we don’t feel torn apart, an extension of a life of Torah, with harmony and serenity, not plagued by doubt and confusion –  וְחַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם

וְטוֹב יִהְיֶה בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְבָרְכֵנוּ וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת־כָּל־עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל־עֵת וּבְכָל־שָׁעָה בִּשְׁלוֹמֶךָ

A puzzle piece on its own will never be complete; the Jewish People are incomplete without each other, and the soul is incomplete without it’s connection the Creator.

One of the functions of the existence of deficiency and lack in our lives is as a prompt to reach out to the Creator and ask, so we ask the Creator – we know that peace is good in God’s eyes – וְטוֹב יִהְיֶה בְּעֵינֶיךָ.

The Rosh Hashana prayers affirm the utopian vision of the world coming together to acknowledge the Creator and do what is right and good in the world – vyeiasu kulam agudah achas laasos retzoncha.

Following the prompt, we ask God to help bring us together – vtov yihye beinecha

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה הַמְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשָּׁלוֹם: –

The Song of Songs refers to the female figure as Shulamis, which our sages understand to be an allegory to the Jewish People. Shulamis is the feminine variant of Solomon or Shlomo, themselves variants of Shalom, peace, or peaceful.

The Jewish People are born as Yakov, clutching at Esau’s heel; he fights with angels and becomes Yisrael. To be Jewish is to be a fighter, to fight for what is right and good. Judaism stands up against selfishness and fights for the sake of peace.

Fighting for peace isn’t contradictory doublespeak; the responsibility to work towards a better world and the ultimate goal of peace sometimes requires a confrontation with ugliness in the world. In a flawed world, the achievement of peace might require using force to defend against aggression or injustice; as one of the great early modern military strategists put it, the aggressor is always peace-loving; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.

Peace isn’t something that happens by itself. It is not a default or natural state. It almost always requires giving something up, compromising, sacrificing, or investing in lasting peace. It requires fighting yourself; God blesses fighters with peace.

Identify an area in your life that you need peace in; an area between yourself and others; yourself and God; and you and yourself. Ask yourself how you’re willing to fight for peace, and do those things; then you can ask for help.

(shlomo

god promises avraham a son

he and his wife are old, it’s an outlandiish cliam, sarah laugh

vayachsehva lo tzedaka

brisker rav – avraham knew that to believe that was charity god had given him

tzedaka is making things fair

hashem tells avraham after all he’s done he beleives in avrhaam and will give him miracle child

carry banner of God

and avraham believed in hashem vayachsehva lo tzedaka

rokeach says whole sentence is one

toras chaim leads to res

with that we have ahavas chess etc

we forget this

sefardics on rosh hashana say song of gates

gate of chayim amen gates of parnassa amen

people shout loudest for parnassa

not loudest for chaim

take for granted

not thtat we dont appreicate them

we assume they are there)

v’Al Kulam – Totality

11 minute read
Straightforward

וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרומַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ תָּמִיד לְעולָם וָעֶד: וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה. וִיהַלְלוּ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת. הָאֵל יְשׁוּעָתֵנוּ וְעֶזְרָתֵנוּ סֶלָה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַטּוב שִׁמְךָ וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהודות – And for everything may Your Name, our King, constantly be blessed and extolled, always and forever. And all the living shall thank You forever and praise and bless Your great Name with sincerity forever; for You are goodness— the Almighty, Who is our deliverance and our help forever— the benevolent Almighty. Blessed are You, Hashem, The Good is Your Name and to You it is fitting to praise.

וְעַל כֻּלָּם – and for everything

Which “everything”?

If you’re allergic to grammar, shut your eyes now.

It is not especially clear what “everything” is a reference to. It is a dangling modifier, an ambiguous grammatical construct that can be interpreted as being associated with more than one word. It is a participle intended to modify a noun that is not actually present in the text.

A simple answer is that it is understood that the conjunctive “and” attach two things, in this case, this blessing to the preceding blessing; so in this reading, it means that everything that we just said we are thankful for elevate God’s name – וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרומַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ.

וְעַל כֻּלָּם – and for everything everything

Beyond that, everything could be a simple reference to literally everything.

We are concluding the Amida prayers; we have done our best. We have thought about many things, learned many interpretations and meditations, and done our best. But however comprehensive the prayer text is, and however genuinely excellent your efforts may be, you will fall well short of the great big everything the Creator is responsible for. It’s just not possible to keep up – וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרומַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ

There is a fascinating and provocative long-standing display in New York City, an electronic billboard showing the national debt, illustrating the economic legacy passed on between generations. The numbers rise by thousands of dollars per second. If someone showed up with a bag of coins at the Federal Reserve central bank, it wouldn’t even register. When people pay their taxes, it barely registers!

As the beautiful Shabbos prayer puts it, if we had all the powers of the universe, it would never be close to enough to adequately thank the Creator – וְאִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם. וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו. וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ. וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְכַיָּרֵחַ. וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם. וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת. אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ. וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. עַל אַחַת מֵאָלֶף אֶלֶף אַלְפֵי אֲלָפִים וְרִבֵּי רְבָבוֹת פְּעָמִים. הַטּוֹבוֹת נִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְעִמָּנוּ

Sometimes, we get to see the excellent and beautiful things in our world that fill us with gratitude, like seeing your loved one at their wedding or when they recover and bounce back. But sometimes, we never even know we were in danger, all the plots and schemes that fail before they get off the ground. On Pesach, we read in the Hagadda how every generation faces mortal danger, even if they never become a clear and present threat – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ. As we later say in Hallel, the nation of the world will praise God because they know even better what God did for us – הַלְלוּ אֶת ה’ כָּל גּוֹיִם, שַׁבְּחוּהוּ כָּל הָאֻמִּים. כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ חַסְדּוֹ.

For everything we don’t even know about – וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרומַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ

To be sure, everything is a lot and includes many things you might not feel so thankful for. But praise isn’t the same as thanks; in competitive sports, when the other teams score an outrageously skillful goal, you applaud them and say well done. You’re not thankful; your team is down! But you offer your honest praise just the same.

תָּמִיד לְעולָם וָעֶד – always and forever

Every day isn’t the same as forever. If a person drinks coffee every day, that doesn’t mean they drink coffee constantly or forever. It means that they intermittently but daily drink coffee.

God is due continuous praise without pause, not intermittent – תָּמִיד לְעולָם וָעֶד.

Beyond that, we believe God is the Source of everything that happens, good and bad, always and forever, without pause. Whereas other religions might be dualistic, thinking that bad things come from Satan or the devil or demiurge, Judaism rejects any such notion. Everything is from the One God, including the bad things that happen to good people. And in the grand scheme of things, when you zoom out enough, and sometimes you have to zoom out really far, we believe that God’s name is elevated by all things, even the bad things.

We see ugly things in the world; some things are horrid. Part of free will means that there cannot be a forced positive response; God generates a stimulus, and only we choose our response.

The Ramchal has a beautiful teaching that in the age of Mashiach, the Jewish People will be able to look back at every fragment of trauma on a personal and national level in our history. God will show us piece by piece, person by person, tear by tear, what it meant and why it mattered, how every puzzle fit together and always did – תָּמִיד לְעולָם וָעֶד.

We don’t have that perspective now. But one day, we will look back in hindsight and say יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרומַם.

God’s actions cannot have a coercive effect on free will; this is prominently highlighted in the Exodus story, where God repeatedly hardens Pharoah’s heart. Where the commentators ask, is Pharoah’s free will? The answer there is that God is sending wave after wave of plague upon Egypt, sending a message to Pharoah, Egypt, and the Jewish People. If Pharoah concedes, it will have been because he was forced to, not out of choice. God hardens his heart to give him the strength to exercise his free will.

It happens in our lives, too.

וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה

All living things thank God; it’s simple, it’s true enough.

Beyond that, King David wrote that he refused to die; he would choose to live and praise God; that he would live to praise God – lo amus ki echyeh, vasaper masei ka

The word for man is the name for the first human being – Adam – ADAM CITE. Breaking up the word and spelling each letter in its inner form is the word for prayer; the essence of being a human is to pray – aleph lamed pey daled lamed kaf mem mem mitpalel CITE.

The challenge of being a human is that prayer isn’t found in words on our lips; it exists in the heart and mind, the inner world of the soul – Rachana liba bai. Prayer is found in the inner letters, not the outer letters – guf bli neshama.

It is the animating spirit that recognizes God – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

Not even that life may recognize God, but that life itself is a praise of God.

Our sages teach that if someone answers a prayer with all they’ve got, it erases all the sins from their record.

Most of the time, life doesn’t go the way you hope.

Shlomo was on a deluxe Pesach program. Someone at a private seder was unhappy that the service was slow and complained. Shlomo said this man was in luxury, surrounded by healthy loved ones. Is waiting five minutes something to be upset about?

We want so much; we have asked for so much. But even if all we had were the fact we’re alive, that would be worthy, suggesting a universal imperative for all living beings to express gratitude merely for the gift of life itself, regardless of their circumstances. This teaching emphasizes an intrinsic value in life, urging an acknowledgment of existence as a sufficient cause for gratitude, highlighting a broad and encompassing perspective on thankfulness. – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

I might be poor, hungry, tired, sick, and hurting, but I am alive – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

Even if you’re just alive, say thank you for that – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

There is a particular blessing, HaGomel, traditionally recited by people who safely pass through significant perils, prison, illness, and the ocean or desert in particular. The Etz Yosef observes that the initial letters of “chavush,” “yissurim,” “yam,” and “midbar” spell the acronym CHAIM CITE.

Each term underscores situations where deliverance is recognized and celebrated, reinforcing the importance of acknowledging one’s vulnerabilities and the miracles of survival, thus compelling all who emerge from such trials to “give thanks.”

Yet, on the other hand, a man once came to Rav Bick with a question. Late at night and approaching a major intersection, the traffic light turned, and he slammed the brakes, but the car didn’t stop, losing traction and skidding across the intersection. There were no cars present, so he was unarmed, but the man was shaken and asked Rav Bick if he had to say the blessing of HaGomel.

Rav Bick answered that he also found himself whimsically contemplating the nature of danger and deliverance. He removes his socks every night, and his wife would wash and dry them. But what if, one day, she washed them and put them in the dryer before he took them off? He would drown in the washing machine and burn in the dryer!

Rav Bick’s story is a symbolic reflection on the necessity of actual peril and genuine risk to life or well-being to meet the technical threshold for the recitation of Birkat HaGomel.

These teachings seem at odds; are you supposed to be thankful even for having nothing or for great salvation?

But the answer is both: everyone should be thankful just to be alive, even when life goes wrong, and actually, you should be extra grateful if you think about things some more.

Many prayers are presented in the negative, like opening the eyes of the blind. Blindness is the lack of sight; until you know what blindness is, you can never truly appreciate the sight and will only take it for granted, like the water the fish swim in. From the contrast, we can better value and appreciate the qualities of what we have.

There are so many things we are missing, that’s true. But some people have been through terrible things; you cannot be thankful until you consider the people who have been most grateful.

When you visit a concentration camp, standing where our ancestors stood, breathing where they took their last breaths, it puts your problems into perspective a little. They still exist, they are still accurate, they matter. But taking that trip teaches you that lesson, and remembering that lesson from time to time stops you from feeling too sorry for yourself.

When we say everyone has to say thank you, it contains a deeper reference to the genuinely thankful people, even those who have experienced incredible difficulty.

Compared to what some people have had to go through, I am thankful for my life.

When a patient is terminally ill and receiving palliative care only, their prayers are different from most people. At that point, the plan of care is about mitigating suffering; their prayers are for their loved ones, and the only person’s prayers are to die in as little pain as possible.

Most humans alive or who have ever lived do not have the abundance, plenty, and privilege we have today. When we say casually thank you for dinner, we never imagine the starving children of the world who haven’t had a meal in days.

We cannot thank God enough; we take speech, sight, and hearing for granted and everything for granted. It’s almost impossible not to!

But subtract any of the things we take for granted, and the contrast reveals that despite whatever we lack, our lives are pretty fantastic. Don’t look at anything you lack in isolation; everyone is born with a lack.

Imagine being attractive, famous, funny, clever, rich, and talented, but there’s someone you know who’s the same except two inches taller, and you’re annoyed about that. Everyone is missing something! For the overwhelming majority of people, the things they lack do not stop them from recognizing the beauty and brilliance of life and that we have been blessed.

(consider Nachum ish gamzu)

(Joey Rosenfeld Poznanski Intro and addiction shiur, enoughness)

Bring your hands as close to your eyes as possible so you can see the contours of your fingerprints without losing focus. Look at your fingerprints, and then between your fingers; you go from seeing the lines in your fingers to seeing nothing at all, just by refocussing your eyes a fraction of a millimeter. What we focus on matters, and focusing on one thing eradicates another: the good or bad things in our lives.

R’ Yehuda Ben Yakar suggests that the living ones imply the ones that were once dead; in the Messianic Age, after the Revival of the Dead, all who ever lived will sing God’s praise – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

Moreover, there could be no more lavish praise of God than bringing the final victory of life over death – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

Sometimes humans praise God with our mouths; sometimes with our actions; but occasionally, with our very existence, with life itself – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

Our sages teach that all living things, animals, plants, and mountains, sing God’s praise – Perek Shira CITE.

They’re not conscious, so perhaps their guardian angel sings it,  or maybe when humans perceive the thing, the thought it inspires generates the praise, but it’s perhaps the thing itself.

When you eat a burger, you scarf it down with a drink, and it sits in your stomach. Without conscious thought, your body processes, digests, separates, and breaks down nutrients and waste.

It just works – asher yatzar es hadam bchochma.

Your lungs move air in and out of the lungs to facilitate gas exchange, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. Your brain processes and controls all the information and activities in the body. Your heart is a power plant that steadily goes, beat after beat. Your body also has a self-healing and repair factor, heating, and cooling. These are just a few of the profoundly complex systems of our body, each of which is integrated into the others.

Life itself praise the creator – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

וִיהַלְלוּ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת – and they will praise Your Name with truth

We praise God because it’s correct, not just because we want something. On the merits, taking an objective view of things, and even with no self-interest or personal gain, it is true and correct.

This is the sentiment expressed in the song in the Haggada that goes line by line through all the beautiful things God did in the Exodus story; if God had only done this one thing for us, it would have been enough to say thank you. If only He’d taken us out of Egypt, If only He’d split the Red Sea, If only He’d taken us to Mount Sinai and the rest.

The apparent issue with the song is that none of those things are enough! Without all of the elements taken together, the Jewish People would have died! But the song isn’t about what would have been enough to survive; it’s about what would have been enough to be thankful. You don’t say thank you at the finish line or to generate the next thing; that would be a please!

All living things, all people who come to life will say thank you – וְכל הַחַיִּים יודוּךָ סֶּלָה.

The Messianic Age will be a post-scarcity society; there will be no lack, and we will still say thank you – truthfully – be’emes

הָאֵל יְשׁוּעָתֵנוּ וְעֶזְרָתֵנוּ סֶלָה –

In the opening blessings, we understood that help is when you do something and receive assistance, and saving is when you do nothing and get rescued. Shielding is preemptively stopping a problem before it ever becomes a problem.

Saving preempts helping, and in a given scenario this sentence doesn’t seem to make much sense on it’s face – הָאֵל יְשׁוּעָתֵנוּ וְעֶזְרָתֵנוּ סֶלָה. But over time, we can experience both; we all have moments of salvation and closeness where everything fits and makes sense – יְשׁוּעָתֵנוּ. But inevitably, every moment like that fades and is followed by long moments of distance and alienation, where God lets go and is concealed.

From those moments, we learn that God is present there, too, much like the Purim story. Our job is to remember the flashes of borrowed inspiration, earn it with perspiration, and make it our own.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה – Blessed are You, Hashem

As we say these words, we bow and stand.

We bow when we acknowledge God as the source of all blessing; I am not the source of blessing in my life, and everything I need comes from outside me.

I bend before God, but I stand in the name of God, Who straightens the bent, which allows me to stand up from my helplessness and vulnerability – like kefufim CITE.

הַטּוב שִׁמְךָ וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהודות – The Good is Your Name and to You it is fitting to praise.

The initial letters of the phrase form the acronym for speech – hey shin vav nun lamed halashon. As we opened the Amida acknowledging, this is what our speech is for – Hashem sefasai tiftach ufi yagid tehilasecha CITE

Appreciation is due to more than just the Creator and not just to humans. In the Torah’s telling of the Exodus story, Moshe does not strike the water that saved his life as an infant or the sand that helped him conceal a crime. In these vignettes, it’s clear that appreciation is a personal sentiment that exists even with an inanimate benefactor.

It is important to be thankful and say thank you, but there can be a pitfall.

Imagine cooking an incredible gourmet Shabbos meal, and a guest goes to the kitchen to help. The food comes out, and everyone sits down to eat. It would be absurd and wildly out of place if someone thanked the guest for the delicious food. Sure, you helped, but what about the host, who did pretty much everything?

We must thank the messengers, especially when they deliberately choose to be kind and do good. But don’t miss the point, don’t thank the mailman more than the sender! Ultimately, all expressions of kindness and goodness are manifestations of God’s goodness and kindness, and that’s the ultimate address of thanks and appreciation – וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהודו.

We don’t bow anywhere except the opening blessing of praise and the closing blessings of thanksgiving; we recognize the Creator and need the Creator. We are thankful without asking for anything in particular here; we might have asked for a whole lot just a few minutes ago, but God is not like a person, and thanking God is the ultimate recognition of our dependence, wholly inseparable from the definition of our relationship, the Creator. To recognize the Creator is to praise the Creator; to need the Creator is to thank the Creator.

It’s impossible not to need more from the Source of all things, but our need is not why we are thankful. We dream of a day when there will be no lack; if we didn’t need anything, we would still say thank you –

Hoda’a – Thanksgiving

29 minute read
Straightforward

מוֹדִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ שָׁאַתָּה הוּא ה’ אֱלֹקינוּ וֵאלֹקי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד צוּר חַיֵּינוּ מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵנוּ אַתָּה הוּא לְדוֹר וָדוֹר נוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶךָ עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ וְעַל־נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל־נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל־יוֹם עִמָּנוּ וְעַל־נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל־עֵת, עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם, הַטּוֹב כִּי לֹא־כָלוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ וְהַמְרַחֵם כִּי לֹא־תַמּוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ, כִּי מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּינוּ לָךְ – We are thankful to You that You Hashem are our God and the God of our fathers forever; Rock of our lives, the Shield of our deliverance, You are in every generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles of every day with us, and for Your wonders and benefactions at all times— evening, morning and noon. (You are) The Beneficent One— for Your compassion is never withheld; And (You are) the Merciful One— for Your kindliness never ceases; for we have always placed our hope in You.

Bowing

A full bow accompanies the opening of the thanksgiving blessing; the technically perfect form is to bend the entire spine forward so the torso is aligned with the ground.

Bowing is a form of body language and communication with significant cultural, social, and religious implications. While precise meanings and nuances vary depending on the cultural context, bowing, in general, is a non-verbal gesture that conveys respect, humility, gratitude, acknowledgment, and submission.

It is the physical embodiment of the act of lowering oneself.

This is one of the four blessings in the Amida that is accompanied by a bow; bowing is the exception, not the rule, and it isn’t even permissible to bow outside these specific blessings.

The laws of prayer specify that if a person cannot concentrate on the entire Amida, then the first blessing is the most important, and to at least focus everything on that one – Avos, Patriarchs, Fathers, Ancestors. The law then stipulates that if one cannot do that, the next best one to concentrate on is Hoda’a: Thanksgiving.

The notion that these two blessings are the ones that require proper intent and are also the ones that you would bow for suggests that these are most important; it also indicates that there is a common denominator between these two blessings that cuts to the heart of prayer.

There are more profound and more superficial expressions when it comes to praying with intent. It’s relatively straightforward to think about the words you’re saying; it’s another thing entirely to mean what you’re saying with passion and enthusiasm.

Not Bowing

Our sages teach that if a person doesn’t bow at this blessing, their spine turns into a snake, a deeply cryptic teaching with layered imagery.

The spine is significant; it links the entire body – a spinal injury cripples the whole body. The spinal cord is the bridge between thoughts and feelings and implementing them with actions in the real world. The mitzvah of tefillin prominently utilizes this model; the head tefillin sits on the forehead over the brain, with the rear knot on the top vertebra of the spine, with straps tracking down the body as though mirroring the spine and nervous system. That arm tefillin is bound to the upper arm opposite the heart, with straps bound down the arm to the hands and fingers. The Tefilin symbolizes binding action, emotion, and thought: hand, heart, and head.

The opening blessings of the Amida were praise; the middle section consists of requests, and this blessing is the beginning of thanksgiving – bow is an action that manifests the knowledge and intellect of the Source of all things.

When the sages say that when a person doesn’t bow, their spine turns into a snake, that doesn’t mean it turns into a scary reptile; it means the snake, the archetypal snake from Eden, the cunning and dangerous deceiver and manipulator.

In the Torah’s telling, the archetypal snake is powerful; it can walk upright, talk, and is far more intelligent than Adam and Eve. It uses these skills and abilities to tempt Eve to defy the Creator, which she initially declines to do. But the snake is clever and persuasive; it suggests that the Creator is not so good, and the rules are merely the Creator acting out of self-interest.

Our sages suggest that when Eve sinned, it was almost as if she had been intimate with the snake, that she had allowed herself to be infected with the snake’s poison by believing that God and God’s rules were self-serving.

When a person doesn’t bow at the blessing of thanksgiving, the acknowledgment and affirmation of God’s goodness, their spine has become the snake, denying God’s good. Our sages also teach the inverse: every time we bow, we heal a bit of the damage of Adam’s original sin.

When a person bows, lowering themselves and demonstrating respect, humility, gratitude, acknowledgment, and submission due to the Creator, it reverses the snake-ification of humanity.

So why not the whole time?

If the case for bowing is so compelling, it naturally follows that perhaps we ought to bow from beginning to end and say the entire prayer prostrate.

But that question misunderstands a fundamental orientation of humans to God.

Bowing physically lowers the human body, evoking the body shape of animals that walk on all fours. Moreover, it conceptually lowers the human body too; humans stand upright, with a physical hierarchy in the way our organs stack – with the conscious mind on top, then the emotional heart, the hungry digestive system, and at the base, the base reproductive system. When a human bows, this hierarchy collapses, with everything at a horizontal level.

Bowing nullifies impurity, but standing reinforces holiness. God doesn’t want us to stay bent; God wants us to stand straight, and the only way to stand is by rising from a bow.

Bowing and standing are functions of the acknowledgment that I am no more than an animal without God, and we say this played out across world history. When people think they are gods, they behave like animals; when they think humans are just animals, they act like animals. But with morality and goodness, we can stand up as humans.

Through thanksgiving and acknowledging our weaknesses and shortcomings, we can do what no animal can – we can consciously recognize God.

Thank you, Hashem, for creating us upright.

Debt of thanks

The Maharal notes that when someone does something good for you, it incurs a debt, not just for the value of the benefit but because they have done anything for you at all. The debt is not cheap; the laws of misleading people and incurring such a debt are serious. A classic example is buying a beautiful birthday cake for someone, and upon realizing it’s not actually their birthday, recycling it for someone else and saying you did it, especially for them.

When you do something nice for someone, they owe you, but if you didn’t do what they think you did, you have stolen their gratitude.

Part of the thanksgiving blessing is paying that debt, giving ourselves over to God; if you owe everything you have to God, you owe everything you are to God. More than mere thanksgiving, it suggests a corresponding obligation and responsibility; it follows that this is why the Jewish People are called Yehudim – YEHUDIM CITE.

Observing the Torah scrupulously is hard. There are so many obligations and restrictions; how could somebody want that? By taking stock of how much we owe the Creator – everything.

Sometimes, some moments make us feel like we don’t owe God that much; some moments feel more like, if anything, God owes us.

But that thought is only coherent if we take everything for granted; it makes no sense to be so selective. You have woken up; you are alive and breathing. The sun has risen once again, and it’s another day in the universe’s vibrant existence; that’s why we start the day with a short thank you prayer – MODEH ANI CITE. That’s not to say things can’t be bad, but those bad things cannot exist in isolation, that is, without an enormous amount of ingratitude. The ability to think and feel sorry for yourself is also a gift – kol haneshama tehalel YA – al kol neshima.

The word we use for thanksgiving suggests a giving over of ourselves, in the plural – MODIM CITE. Almost all prayers are pluralized because they’re for the greater Jewish People, not just ourselves. Bless me and them, too; bless us. Heal me and that person, too; heal us.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we can offer thanks on someone else’s behalf. While there is a personal Modim at the repetition, we can offer thanks for all the people who don’t know to direct their thanks to the Creator; perhaps there isn’t even such a thing as a purely personal blessing, and we can be thankful for all the communal blessings.

I am thankful for that person’s wealth, with which they support the community. I am grateful for that person’s intelligence, which they use to teach so many.

Many people sway during their prayers, rocking to and fro, back and forth, fast or slow. It’s a way of the body articulating its prayer, actively participating – kol atzmosai tomarna.

But there are things I’m not thankful for

I hate school, I hate my job, I hate this personal crisis, I hate my failure. There are things we are not thankful for; does that make you ungrateful?

It’s not fair or honest to suggest that; to do so would be to negate the entire subjective human experience; if you didn’t have thoughts or feelings, then you wouldn’t think or feel that way, obviously.

But instead, a perspective shift is in order; not the universal view that negates your existence, but a longer time horizon.

Some things are uncomfortable but ultimately for the good.

Dieting isn’t as fun as eating, but good health is essential. Saving isn’t as fun as spending; financial well-being is important; homework is boring, but education is everything; your job might be rubbish, but taking care of your family is critical.

While every moment of the process is uncomfortable, it’s directed towards a positive outcome, an end goal that is good; we can be thankful for that. You can be thankful without feeling so happy or excited; you can be grateful and still be hurting or upset.

There are times when people go through great difficulty and say years later that they would choose it again.

A girl’s mother was terminally ill; she was a fantastic mother and woman, and the girl was distraught. But given the choice of an average mother with long life or her incredible mother for the time she was allotted, she would choose her mother for as long as possible every time. Not to detract in any way from the profound loss and pain of that family, but if that’s what she could choose, that was what she already had, a blessing in a certain sense.

שָׁאַתָּה הוּא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ

Our prayers alternately refer to God in the second and third person – you / Him – ATA / HU ELOKEIN. You speak to someone in the second person when directly interacting with them in their presence; you are speaking directly to them. Speaking in the third person means talking about someone who isn’t there; speaking to someone who is there and about someone who is not doesn’t make much sense usually, but it does about the Creator – there is a part that is revealed and a part that is not, and we are thankful for both.

We are thankful for the mercy we see and the judgment we don’t. There are times we want to see God; on Rosh Hashana, we pray for a happy and sweet new year because not everything sweet is happy, and not everything happy is sweet. It’s a prayer to see God’s plan, for it to make sense and feel good.

But there are times we don’t want to see God’s plan; our sages teach that when Yakov wished to reveal the end of history on his deathbed, God clouded his prophecy clouded over because it would be devastating to learn how distant it would be, and the truth was too heavy – bikesh yakov lgalos es hakeitz CITE.

Life takes place amidst uncertainty, possibility, and probability; knowing everything kills what it is to be human. In the Purim story, Haman’s plot terrifies the Jews into repentance and a religious revival that launches a new era of Torah and rebuilds the Beis Hamikdash; if they had known all along that the plot would fail, the humans never made the changes and take the actions and steps they needed to, and the story could never happen. As R’ Jonathan Sacks said, if we could understand why bad things happen to good people, we would simply accept it.

It’s important that God be concealed at times.

When a child is learning to ride a bike, the father needs to hold the bike, but it’s also essential for the father to let go; that’s how you learn to ride a bike. After successfully learning how to ride a bike, the child is thankful to the father for teaching him, both for holding and also for letting go – the revealed and the hidden.

אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד

We are thankful for eternity – לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.

We’re thankful that God has always stuck with us and will never trade or upgrade us. There are moments we have fallen short, well short, as a nation and as individuals. Thank you Hashem for never leaving us, never abandoning us, for staying our God despite everything – אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד

More profoundly, the nature of our relationship with the Creator is one of eternity; God takes a long-term view of things. The babysitter might indulge the screaming child with chocolate, but his mother might not. Hidden or revealed, the relationship is eternal; even when things aren’t super favorable in the short term, we are thankful that God looks out for the long term.

(god of eternity, giant complex wild universe)

צוּר חַיֵּינוּ – the one-man army

As one might navigate the challenging journey of a loved one’s illness, hospital visits might become a stage for encounters filled with escalating gratitude for each person, reflecting the significance of their role in the journey toward healing.

A simple yet sincere “thank you” might be offered to the lunch lady who cheerfully delivers. The medical tech who ensures the smooth operation of life-sustaining equipment is met with a grateful “Thank you, your work is crucial.” The nurse, whose care and compassion oversee the general quality of care, receives a heartfelt “I appreciate how much you’re doing.” To the anesthesiologist, whose efforts take the edge off any pain, “Your efforts really made a difference; thank you so much!” And finally, to the surgeon, whose skill, expertise, and decisions are critical from the top down, the deepest expression of profound gratitude must be offered; “Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it; you’ve given us hope and healing. We are eternally grateful.”

What if, three years later, the patient has a relapse and is readmitted, and the staff are all gone? There were budget cuts, and the surgeon was the only one left. He brought the food, managed the equipment, made the beds, kept watch night and day, administered pain management medication, and performed life-saving surgery as well.

A one-man army is a fictional trope, a caricature that could never truly exist; it takes a village. Words fail to acknowledge the extreme level of goodness shared adequately; you would be in awe of the presence of such a person. They would not just be owed the thanks that everyone else would get combined; they are due all the thanks amplified, squared, cubed, and compounded.

Your gratitude is contingent on what you have received; part of the proper way to show appreciation is to recognize the goodness done for you, directly influencing how you would relate to them.

All the goodness we have ever received comes from God – tova kfula umkupeles CITE

צוּר חַיֵּינוּ – the rock

The word we use to describe the relationship with God in our lives is multifaceted, with different related, overlapping meanings.

Firstly, it can mean rock. When someone is your rock, it means they are a reliable anchor of stability, an immovable object you can lean on – צוּר חַיֵּינוּ

It can also mean strength or power, our Source of strength and security.

It can also be a variant form of the word for painter – TZIUR CITE. Our sages teach that God is a painter – ein tzur elokeinu, ein tzayer kelokeinu

It can also be a variant form of the word for creator yotzer – CITE

Lastly, it can mean Source, the place from which we are drawn – mekor CITE

Firstly, it can mean rock. When someone is your rock, it means they are a reliable anchor of stability, an immovable object you can lean on – צוּר חַיֵּינוּ

There are times a person can relate to God as something to hold onto, that you can turn to God when you need to. If you understand you can count on God and that God is something solid to hold onto, you turn to God. If people don’t understand God or their prayer, they won’t count on it, and it won’t do much for them.

Imagine climbing an old, rickety staircase; you need a sturdy railing to hold onto. If there’s just an old, rickety railing, you won’t hold tight, and your steps will be uncertain; you will tread lightly, unwilling to commit, and when you can’t commit to something, it can’t support you. But when you have a support that you don’t commit to, it can’t work as a support, not because of its own deficiency, but because of you.

God is the rock of our lives; we can lean on God and God can support us – hasleich al hashem vhu yechalkelecha CITE. But support is useless when you don’t count on it.

In the middle of a war, a child, separated from his family, is caught in a dangerous crossfire. As bullets tear through the air, a figure reaches out and pulls him to the ground and safety. He whispers, “Shh—it’s Dad.” In an instant, surrounded by chaos and with danger close, the child experiences a sudden sense of safety.

In the moments you wish you had something to lean on when you can’t do it alone, remember that God is the rock; utilize it.

(harold kushner about people finding strenght when they had none)

צוּר חַיֵּינוּ – the strength of our life

It can also mean strength or power, our Source of strength and security.

Different from rock in the sense of security, God gives us strength. So many times, life can beat a person down with sickness, weakness, failure, loss, or a combination. Empty, with nothing left in the tank, a person can come to life again, energized and revitalized. We know people who find the ability to do something they did not believe they could or honestly could not. It happens all the time, and you can be sure it will continue to occur in the future as well.

If there is something you cannot do, you can pray to find the strength.

צוּר חַיֵּינוּ – the artist of our lives

It can also be a variant form of the word for artist or painter – TZIUR CITE. Our sages teach that God is a artist – ein tzur elokeinu, ein tzayer kelokeinu

Wise men have consistently recognized the universe as a masterful artwork, from Maimonides to Einstein.

The brushstrokes of existence that span the cosmos testify to the beauty that resides across the range of infinity. The Galaxies spiral in dances across the void, stars are born in explosive nebulas, and supernovas scatter the seeds of creation. Planets orbit in serene silence, each world a jewel in the celestial crown, their surfaces and atmospheres weaving stories of mystery and possibility. In our world, the mountains reach out to the earth, their peaks brushing the sky, while mighty oceans cover the earth, their depths harboring secrets in the dark embrace of water. The forests breathe life, a symphony of flora and fauna, each leaf and creature a note in the song of the Earth, a melody of interconnected survival and symbiosis. Beyond what the eye can see, cells divide with extreme precision, with the brilliant power of DNA encoding the blueprints of life underpinning the diversity of existence. Beyond that, the atoms and particles dance in the quantum realm, their interactions governed by forces that bind the universe in a delicate balance, crafting matter and energy from the void, a microcosm of creation that mirrors the grandeur of the cosmos.

A masterpiece of complexity, simplicity, chaos, and order, each layer reveals further layers of beauty and sophistication that captivate the mind and stir the soul. On this grand canvas, the design of the fabric of our reality is special, every brush stroke singing to the Creator.

Beyond the beauty of the external world, we are also blessed with subjective beauty, the beauty we can experience. A child’s warm embrace, a picturesque landscape, the miracle of childbirth, a person’s smile.

As much as the universe exists for the Torah and morality, the canvas is too big if that is the only goal. We could exist as flat stick figures in a two-dimensional geometric world, but we don’t because God’s kindness is multi-dimensional, with the rich depth of fall leaves and rainbow sunsets.

The analogy runs deeper still; there’s a big difference between a painting and a drawing. A drawing is relatively easy to identify from the outset; there are outlines, shapes, and shading. A painting is very different because there are coats and layers; you can often only see the outcome when it’s finished or nearly finished.

God paints reality and our lives in shades and layers with deep complexity. Part of living on God’s canvas is that we cannot know what comes next; we live, move, and act within different phases of uncertainty.

It’s not a bug; that’s a feature of the whole assignment. The entire exercise and point of our lives is to put together the pieces and create something worthwhile out of our lives; there is no wrong thing. Work with what you have been given; your best guess must be correct because you cannot know otherwise; you cannot be wrong. Of course, with more information later, you need to adapt, but everything is obvious in hindsight; you must do the best you can with the information you have at the moment.

A judge can rule with smoking gun evidence that a person is guilty, and that would be the correct ruling. If evidence emerges later that the person is innocent, they must be ruled innocent, but the first trial was not wrong; the judge must follow the process with the information available. We are all judges, and we cannot know what new information tomorrow will bring; our sages teach that judges can only be responsible for the information they have and not the information they do not – ein ldaya ela ma sheino roois – CITE

Each new element of information and life adds richness, depth, and complexity to the rest. A stroke of white might be light, and a little red might be anger.

God is a painter; we cannot see the canvas we live within, but we can be sure it is a work of art.

צוּר חַיֵּינוּ – creator of our lives

This can also be a variant form of the word for creator yotzer – CITE

While we may speak about artists as creative, an enormous difference exists between artists and creators. What we call creativity isn’t creative; all creative work is derivative, building on something that existed before.

Carl Sagan once quipped that to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. To do anything from scratch, from nothing at all, you need constituent atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and the rest, and atoms cannot exist without the creative processes of the Big Bang.

Artists can combine and recombine materials but cannot create; a unicorn merges a horse with a horn, a pegasus is a horse with a bird, and a centaur is a horse with a man. The building blocks of creativity are recycled, not original. It can’t be otherwise; we cannot imagine something we have never seen.

To be clear, combinations can be creative and original. The Mona Lisa or the perfect chicken sandwich are works of art and what we call creative, but the only actual act of creation is Creation itself, ex nihilio, something from nothing – yesh meaiyin – CITE.

God’s creativity is different and unimaginable.

(this anecdote doesn’t illustrate God’s creativity to me; it illustrates human derivative creativity)

In some of our darkest days, the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 had already seen hundreds of thousands of innocent people transported to the gas chambers. Hundreds of lightly armed Jewish fighters led a resistance effort that was partially successful and spurred an uprising, demonstrating audacity and bravery amid unimaginable horrors. Although ultimately doomed, as they knew they were, they fought for the honor of the Jewish people, a protest against the world’s silence in the face of the Nazi’s unspeakable evils, and they fought harder and held out longer than the Polish army.

For half a century, the Cold War marked decades of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, with an open struggle for dominance and influence that was felt across the globe, sparking an arms race and nuclear testing that threatened human civilization. World leaders openly and repeatedly threatened each other with nuclear annihilation, which people believed was inevitable. And yet, the Cold War never became a hot war; a generation that had grown up in the shadow of the constant threat of nuclear war turned on the news and saw the Soviet Union collapse without a single shot fired.

You can book a ticket and be in Spain by tomorrow lunchtime for a lovely holiday. You’d never know that the Spanish Inquisition spanned a few centuries and terrorized one of the seats of Jewish culture in exile in the Middle Ages, brutally and publicly executing thousands of Jews, abducting and converting tens of thousands more, and terrorizing all rest. But today, Jews are welcome with open arms!

God’s creativity is not like ours. God’s creativity exceeds our imagination, unlocking vistas of tremendous hope; it means there is no hopeless scenario where a person cannot hope and pray. It means you can never create something you can’t return from; there can be something new.

(but some things are hopeless – warsaw ghetto uprising fighters all died)

God doesn’t just sustain us; God creates us.

There is newness – mechadesh bchol yom btuvo

living with newness torahredux

https://torahredux.com/living-with-newness/

צוּר חַיֵּינוּ – the source of life

https://torahredux.com/soul-sparkles/

A more profound interpretation is that this isn’t a description of what God does for us but that we are a fragment of godliness drawn from God, the Source of all life.

When we speak about the fundamental essence of Jewish identity, the pintele Yid, the incorruptible soul, these are different ways of saying that what animates us is the living force of God, drawn from God – חלק אלוק ממעל

chatzuvim (I don’t know this word)

Taking this imagery to its conclusion, if there is a piece of God in us, then we are a piece of God, the part that animates, motivates, and inspires our consciousness.

God is transcendent, above space and time, and yet deeply imminent, profoundly present,

The piece of immortal eternity and infinity that lives within us here and now. More than just an animating energy or force, this gift bestows consciousness, the ability to perceive the immortal soul within.

The existence of a soul necessarily means that a human is so much more than a physical body; our consciousness loudly proclaims that there is much more than the material world we can see and feel.

Knowing there resides a piece of God within you means you won’t live with the limitations that people who don’t know live with; we believe that death is not the end; there exists a great beyond, a hereafter that goes endlessly on. Knowing there is a beyond, we can beyond our limitations; boundaries and distinctions are artificial, and there is only One, there is only God, the eternal and eternity, of which I am a part – shema yisrael CITE.

This is the sentiment that our ancestors have expressed, with self-sacrifice, dying al kiddush Hashem with mesiras nefesh

(needs work)

מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵנוּ

God guards our salvation; we can ruin it, God will protect it.

Our autonomy and choice grant us enormous power and capability to shape our world and our lives for better and worse, including the ability to self-sabotage and ruin the things we love. Despite our capacity to make mistakes, God’s protective embrace remains a testament to the enduring promise of divine oversight.

In this delicate balance between divine protection and human agency, our spiritual journey unfolds, guided by the omnipotent hand that both shields and allows us the freedom to navigate our path, affirming that even in moments of misstep, the divine intention to protect our salvation endures.

God is the vigilant guardian of our salvation, a steadfast protector against the tumults of life. Yet, within this divine safeguarding lies a profound truth: our actions hold the power to undermine this protection. It’s a delicate balance where divine providence and human agency intersect, reminding us that while God will unfailingly protect our salvation, the responsibility to honor and preserve this gift through our choices and actions rests squarely upon our shoulders. This dynamic interplay underscores the significance of our role in the divine scheme, where our free will determines the course of our spiritual journey, even as we remain under the watchful eye of a benevolent Creator.

וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶךָ

We will tell God’s praises.

This phrase is a little unusual because it is a more complex form of something more straightforward. Editing the sentence for brevity and clarity, you wouldn’t tell God’s praise; you would praise God – NEHALEL CITE.

But there is more to it than just praising God with a thank you; this blessing tells us to praise God using one of the most powerful pieces of human culture and technology – stories. Storytelling is one of the fundamental building blocks of human civilization, bringing people together and inspiring belief and behavior on a large scale, ultimately shaping society and history.

When expressing gratitude, don’t just say thank you; tell the story in rich detail. The better the story, the greater the payoff and praise. Don’t just say thank you, talk about it. Beyond prayer, tell your friends the good news, even if it sounds silly sometimes. Live with an orientation of gratitude.

Story

In a Central London train station, a young rabbi, Shlomo Farhi, had a train to catch. He was going to teach a well-attended class in Birmingham, but he was running late characteristically. Scheduled for departure at 3:01, Farhi found himself at the mercy of a ticket machine with seconds to spare. He inserted his debit card to print the ticket he’d reserved, but the machine glitched and spat out a forest’s worth of tickets and receipts. Shlomo snatched them all in a desperate attempt to catch his train, but fate had other plans, and by the time he arrived at the platform, he had missed the 3:01 train.

The next train wasn’t much later but was during peak hours, requiring a different ticket. Without the right ticket, the cash-strapped young rabbi with an empty wallet and matching bank account wouldn’t make it.

In a twist of desperation, Shlomo boarded the peak train, offering the wad of tickets to the conductor at the beginning of the platform. The conductor flicked through the pile, stamped a ticket, and waved Shlomo aboard. Shlomo looked through the pile for the stamped ticket to Birmingham, not for the 301 train he had booked with his name on it, but the ticket he needed at that moment – a first-class ticket peak ticket to Birmingham, not in his name but for a Miss Erica Jones.

It was as if the universe had conspired to place him exactly where he needed to be without him even realizing it, and this was the golden ticket, a stroke of luck that felt like a whisper of divine intervention.

The journey to Birmingham was smooth, filled with the anticipation of teaching the Torah, a purpose that filled Shlomo with warmth and fulfillment. The class was a smash hit and cemented lifelong spiritual gains for the students who attended, who brought all their friends to the next class. Shlomo was on a high.

One of the students drove Shlomo back from Birmingham to London, and the return journey was a stark contrast. Driving back in the dead of night, the car made a tremendous thump, and Shlomo’s hit bounced off the roof. The car lifted into the air, violently swerving off the highway at 80mph. Off the side of the cold, deserted road at 3 am, Shlomo climbed out of the car, disoriented and freezing, and began walking backward.

From the darkness, a truck’s headlights illuminated a wheel on the road – the culprit of the accident. What followed was a domino effect of swerving cars and trucks, one hitting the loose wheel, dragging it with sparks that lit the night and almost caught fire.

This story, a journey from Birmingham and back, encapsulates the duality of life’s experiences – the joy of fulfilling one’s purpose contrasted with the chaos of unforeseen trials. It’s a narrative that teaches the importance of recognizing the moments of ease and grace we are given and the resilience required to face the challenges. For Farhi, the journey wasn’t just about reaching a destination but understanding the more profound lessons embedded in each moment of his trip, the bits of divine intervention we recognize, and the many we don’t, all woven into the fabric of our lives.

There are parts of life we see and make sense of and parts we don’t, hidden and revealed. The journey to Birmingham was incredible, impossible, miraculous; it felt amazing, a thumbs up from Heaven about Shlomo’s importance. The journey back corrects any notions of the importance of the teacher, an exercise in humility that reveals what the less was: the value of teaching Torah classes to students on campus, not the teacher.

Your life story matters, how you tell it, and details matter. Narrate the hand of God in your life, and tell it well –  וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶךָ.

עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ

God alone decides life and death and everything in between. There are much greater forces at play in the universe that I am not the arbiter of; our lives are in God’s hands;     עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.

Beyond that, this phrase suggests that our lives are given over to God, that our lives exist to serve God –  עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.

When we talk about God’s hand or voice, we must remember that God has no form; God does not have arms or a mouth. These are words we use when we talk about people; they are anthropomorphic metaphors. Although not strictly accurate, they are helpful because they are familiar; when we talk about being in someone’s hands, it’s also a metaphor, and we understand that it is in someone’s control.

When we talk about the hand of God specifically, it means the hand that writes history, as the Torah speaks about God’s outstretched mighty arm as the tool that drove the Exodus story. The sweeping flourishes of the Divine paintbrush drive history to people with a discerning eye.

The way our sages talk about the human relationship with Heaven, every nation and race has a guardian angel, a kind of angelic representation of the idealized form. At the Red Sea, the Torah describes how the Jewish People saw Egypt coming after them and were terrified; noting the Torah’s description of Egypt, not Egyptians, our sages suggest they saw nothing less than the angelic form of Egypt itself in pursuit, and their terror was at the thought that Heaven might have sent some kind of spiritual power after them – mitzrim / mitrayim CITE.

However, in this spiritual hierarchy, while Edom may have an angel who does battle, Yakov has no such representative and must do battle himself. The Jewish People do not have a guardian angel and are guided directly by God’s hand – ani vlo malach CITE.

Quite literally then, we are in God’s hands – עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.

(I don’t recognize this word; more research required)

In the harrowing confines of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews faced unimaginable hardship, a group of Chassidim defiantly established underground shuls and shtiebels, carving out sanctuaries of faith amidst the desolation. As the ghetto met its tragic end, the Nazis, armed with flamethrowers, sought to extinguish the last vestiges of Jewish resistance.

Amidst the inferno, the last man standing, surrounded by flames, recalled a story shared by the Chafetz Chaim about a man who, having fled Spain, lost everything—his family, community, home, and wealth. Stripped of all but his spirit, the man declared to God that while everything had been taken from him, his love for the Divine remained untouchable, a treasure beyond the reach of his persecutors.

Facing the abyss, in the valley of the shadow of death, the last man standing closed his eyes and spoke to creation. He had lost everything; all he had left was his love for God. He would not give that up; he would not let God take that from him.

Our lives are God’s; our lives are in God’s hands, deeply committed even to death – עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.

Generation after generation of our ancestors lived and willingly died because they valued being God’s people and doing what is right and good in this world. And not just righteous scholars, saints, and sages; ordinary folks, regular people died at the stake and the gas chambers and every other horrible way because they understood that our lives are dedicated to the service of something much bigger than ourselves, that this is not the end, that our immortal souls connect to and interface with something far more significant, – עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.

וְעַל־נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ

It’s funny to think about our souls as ours in any real way, as though they belong to us, but that’s how we talk. When we go to sleep, we lose consciousness; consciousness is poorly understood, but our sages teach that when we sleep, our souls depart our bodies and return to Heaven, and they come back every morning, almost like a revival of the dead, one of the sources of the practice to wash hands in the morning.

Our sages teach that every night; the angels question whether we deserve our soul back; are we using it for its highest and best use? Is this the most efficient use of spirituality? Is there a better way to allocate? And every night so far, the angels have lost that debate.

Our sages give an analogy of a hundred-dollar debt someone owes you. You keep asking for it back, and they never pay you back. One day, they come to you and ask you to hold on to a hundred dollars for them for a few days. You might think, jackpot! You can deduct what you are owed from what you have just received, and you are all square, entirely whole. But God never treats our soul that way; it is entrusted to God – pikadon CITE.

God will not violate that trust even if we have other debts, even if we have squandered our gifts –  וְעַל־נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ.

וְעַל־נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ

While laypeople may speak of a head injury, a medical professional may talk about a laceration with irregular edges and debris present. Both are correct, but professionals communicate with greater precision.

Jewish mysticism teaches that just like the body, the soul also has an anatomy, a spiritual structure with different parts and functions. Deeply complex and nuanced, the familiar ones are Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama, which we mostly use interchangeably; there are also more esoteric parts called Chaya and Yechida.

The Nefesh Hachaim uses glassblowing as the guiding metaphor. This technique involves blowing air through a tube or pipe to inflate molten glass into a bubble, which is then crafted into a utensil. The Neshama is the breath of the Glassblower, the animating force; the Ruach is the airflow through the connective tube; and the Nefesh is the molten glass that becomes a utensil or vessel through this process.

Our bodies contain the Nefesh, but the Neshama, the breath of the Glassblower that animates us, never truly becomes our own. That remains God’s as an entrusted object; not just overnight, but always – וְעַל־נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ.

In the morning prayers, one of the first blessings is about the soul God places in me – elokai neshama shenasata bi. This language is sharp and precise; you are not your body. Your body is a container – levush; you are not just your body, you are a soul, and you are more than this lifetime.

If an older gentleman gave his son a million dollars to invest and the investments go back, the son might be devastated he let his father down. But if the gentleman understands good risk management strategies, he can tell the son he didn’t give the son everything and that he actually held back far more – it’s not the end of the world.

When a person experiences a setback, they can feel ruined. God can open the drawer and say your soul is still in perfect condition, and through that piece God holds back, a person can find new light and holiness, a new vitality that revives his whole spirit.

Precisely for this reason, a person can always do teshuva until the day they die, because that is the part of the soul you could never dirty or destroy; that’s the part God never let go of – וְעַל־נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ

וְעַל־נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל־יוֹם עִמָּנוּ וְעַל־נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל־עֵת

נִסֶּיךָ

Miracles and wonders are similar, but they’re not the same. The word for miracles is the same as the word for banner in the blessing for the Gathering of Exiles – נִסֶּיךָ/  נס. That suggests that a miracle is something you recognize God through; we are thankful for the times we see God.

There is an uncomfortable meaning embedded in the words as well, the word for test or challenge – נִסֶּיךָ / NISAYON CITE. It is a form of miracle when people can rise to the challenge; when they rise to the challenge, it is a miracle, and they merit miracles as well and become standard bearers who raise the flag for God to all. This association suggests that the ultimate purpose of every challenge is to raise the flag; it might not be visible in the moment, but it often is after the fact, and we are thankful.

נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ

There are wondrous, breathtaking things in our world—landscapes, flowers, life, from big to small. If God is an artist and creates beauty for us, then when we notice and admire, it flatters the Creator. Every component of Creation has elements that can be enjoyed and appreciated; miracles are rare, but wonders surround us every moment of every day, the perfect balance of creation.

– שֶׁבְּכָל־עֵת

In every moment, there is so much to be thankful for, including things you wouldn’t think of.

Before King David was king, he was in the garden and watched a wasp paralyzing a spider. Amazed by the scene, David wondered what the point of useless creatures was. Wasps don’t produce honey; they even kill bees sometimes. And what about spiders? What do spiders or wasps do for people?

After a while, King Saul began to envy David’s military success, and David had to escape and hide in a cave. Shortly after, a spider spun its web around the entrance. Saul arrived at the cave, noticed the cobwebs, and moved on; if someone was inside the cave they’d have broken the webs.

In a later episode, David snuck into Saul’s camp to show him his defenses could be cracked. David crept forward to take Shaul’s water bottle, but one of Saul’s retainers unwittingly stood on David’s cloak, trapping him from leaving. A wasp appeared and stung the guard, who jumped, releasing David.

Later in life, King David had to flee from Absalem, his son, who had launched a revolt. David escaped to enemy territory and was recognized. Fearing for his safety, he pretended to act insane, pounding his head on the city gate and foaming at the mouth, spit dripping from his beard. The foreign king Achish looked at him and said to his servants, “Can’t you see he’s crazy? Why did you let him in here? Don’t you think I have enough crazy people to put up with as it is without adding another? Get him out of here!”

bshanoso taamo lifnei avimelech CITE

In the local context, some things aren’t so great; in the greater tapestry of the big wide world, we can be thankful for everything, even spiders, wasps, and insanity – avarcha es hashem tamid tehilaso befi CITE.

עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם

Conventionally, the classical structure of the Hebrew day is that the day ends at the end of the day, that is, the evening. So a day consists of evening first, then morning and afternoon – עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

The Mabit suggests that this is a reference to the seasons of human life; when a person lives with the end in mind, evening first, they will live doing the right thing, and what follows will be mornings full of light – baerev al tanach yadecha CITE

One of the exhibits at the Auschwitz Birkenau memorial is a pile of talleisim, prayer shawls from communities all over Europe. Each one has tears and patches from a lifetime of use. A typical gift at weddings, you could imagine one being worn at the wedding, their son’s bris, bar mitzvah, wedding, and on. These talleisim are silent witnesses to the cycles of life that were extinguished.

In the seasons of our lives, we want completely different things, so our prayers change. Children pray for toys, treats, good grades, friends, and popularity; young adults seek to find their soulmates; newlyweds yearn for fertility and happiness; and parents hope their children enjoy what they had prayed for once: good grades, friendships, and popularity.

The prayers of an child, adult, and the sage – עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

These prayers come full circle and are reborn each season of life and in each generation – עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

Beyond that, there are morning people, and there are night owls. Some people are early birds, rising quickly and easily active and energetic in the morning. Other people can stay up all night without missing a beat, but their mornings will be miserable even after a good night’s sleep and a coffee.

We are thankful that whichever way we are, there are different times in the day to do the things we need to – עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

Beyond that, there is more to a gift than the gift itself. A critical part of the gift is the timing of the gift; you need to be capable of receiving it. Even the right thing at the wrong time is no good and can backfire spectacularly.

What good is it to meet the perfect person before you’re ready? What good is it to land the perfect opportunity before you know what to do with it?

We ask God to send us the things we need in the moments we need them, in a way we can receive them, that can look different at different times – עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

You don’t really want the blessing you’re asking for to be answered in a way that you can’t do anything with; that can hurt and make you bitter.

הַטּוֹב כִּי לֹא־כָלוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ

וְהַמְרַחֵם כִּי לֹא־תַמּוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ, כִּי מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּינוּ לָךְ:

We are thankful for God’s goodness with unending compassion and God’s compassion with unending kindness. This seems transposed, but it’s not; we might have expected to speak about God’s goodness with endless kindness, but that’s not what the blessing is for.

For God to be completely good, it cannot be that God’s kindness never ends because unending kindness isn’t good at all. Unending good means a lack of compassion; there are times when hard things can be good things.

We are thankful that God is God unendingly compassion good.

(needs work)

כִּי מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּינוּ לָךְ

Straightforwardly, the Jewish People have always counted on God. Who else is there to turn to?

More than that, the word for always also means hidden – מֵעוֹלָם / HEELAM CITE.

The Yaavetz suggests that greater than the wonders of nature or even the Exodus is the miracle of history that the Jewish People exist right now. Against all odds, we are thankful, and we have learned to trust in God – כִּי מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּינוּ לָךְ

In the early days of World War Two, a ship was carrying refugees from Germany to the United Kingdom, guarded by Irish soldiers. In a bitter twist of irony, the people seeking refuge from persecution found themselves victimized once more, and the Irish soldiers robbed them, one by one, out of the fire and into the frying pan.

In a moment of exhausted frustration, some refugees threw their luggage overboard; better to lose it in the ocean than to some thugs.

Years later, historians unearthed a diary belonging to a Nazi U-boat captain. They found the revelation within its pages that his U-boat had once encountered a refugee ship. They had their torpedoes locked, but upon closer inspection, they identified German paraphernalia and decided to call off an impending attack to avoid killing German civilians.

In every moment, good things are happening.

biggest nisayon is time – nachshon ben aminadav torah

Avoda – Service

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Straightforward

רְצֵה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ בְּעַמְּךָ יִשרָאֵל וְלִתְפִלָּתָם שְׁעֵה. וְהָשֵׁב אֶת הָעֲבודָה לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶךָ. וְאִשֵּׁי יִשרָאֵל וּתְפִלָּתָם. מְהֵרָה בְּאַהֲבָה תְקַבֵּל בְּרָצון. וּתְהִי לְרָצון תָּמִיד עֲבודַת יִשרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ.  וְתֶחֱזֶינָה עֵינֵינוּ בְּשׁוּבְךָ לְצִיּון בְּרַחֲמִים: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’. הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתו לְצִיּון – Be pleased, Hashem, our God, with Your people Israel and pay need to their prayer; and restore the service to the Holy of Holies in Your abode, and the fire-offerings of Israel; and accept their prayer, lovingly and willingly. And may You always find pleasure with the service of Your people, Israel.

Intro

The opening three blessings of the Amida identify and praise God, the middle section

consists of personal and communal requests, and the Amida concludes with thanksgiving blessings.

And yet, the thanksgiving blessings also contain requests: the blessing for peace and light, and this blessing. Unlike how we might offer thanks to another person, these thanksgiving blessings also combine an element of request.

If a child approaches their father and says what a nice father he is, it might be natural to suspect the child is about to ask for something he wants.

The way to thank the Creator fundamentally differs from how we might thank the average person. When thanking someone who has helped you, it typically means that your need for their help has concluded, and you no longer need their help. If you were to thank someone and then ask for more, it would be interpreted as disingenuous, that you aren’t thankful at all, and your display of gratitude is a pretext to what you actually want – more.

But with the Creator, it’s impossible to say thank you like that or outgrow God’s help.

As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, the Hebrew word for thanksgiving doesn’t just mean thanks; it also means to confess – מודה / lhodos CITE. When we thank another, we concede that we need the assistance of another, admitting our frail weakness and showing our vulnerability. We acknowledge that another has shared gifts with us, big and small, to help us achieve goodness in our lives.

God is the source of all we are given, from the greatest to the smallest thing; by definition, we can have nothing, and there can be nothing without God; it follows that thanking God includes asking for more.

רְצֵה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ בְּעַמְּךָ יִשרָאֵל –

The blessing opens by asking God to want our prayers and service, but like the opening of the previous blessing, it seems circular – you either want something or you don’t.

On Rosh Hashana, the prayers we sing liken us to sons and servants – אבינו מלכינו /  hayom haras olam, im kvanim im kavadim – CITE. There are aspects in which we relate to God as Father and others in which we relate to God as Master; the relationship is fundamentally different. During a period where we serve Hashem properly, we are His sons, and (ch” v) in a time where the Jews do not serve Hashem properly, the Jews are downgraded to the status of servants.

A servant works for reward and is motivated by economics. He does nothing extra and earns nothing extra. A son, however, does as his father tells him out of love. And in turn, the father loves the child. But the child has a further ability. When the son enjoys or loves something, the father ensures his son has access to the thing he loves, and to a large degree, the father then cares for something, not because he values it, but because his son does.

When a child asks his mother for pizza on a good day, she will take her child to the pizza store; she now wants to get him pizza. If they’re closed or sold out, the child might be disappointed, and so will his mother; the child’s desire has created and influenced the mother’s desire. The parent’s desire isn’t intrinsic but responsive to her child. For that to happen, her child has to act like a child and be a good kid. If it’s disobedience and tantrums, there will be no pizza.

Our sages teach that if we do God’s will, God will make His will into ours.

When a mother tells her son to clean his room, he might sigh and complain, and his mother might say she wants him to want to do it. Recognizing how much his mother does for him, he might decide it’s not so bad to cooperate, and his mother will be touched and think her son is amazing for wanting what she wants.

A servant is someone who subordinates their will; they follow the employer’s instructions.

If we act towards God as Father in one context, perhaps it makes what we want elsewhere God’s will in that context.

We ask God to desire something that may not be intrinsically attractive; we want God to want. The word for simple Jews in Hebrew is the people – עַמְּךָ. They’re not righteous, not wicked, just ordinary everyday folks, Jews, and nothing else. We ask God to desire the simple Jews, not just the righteous, and the fighting and trying their best, embodied by the name Yisrael, the title Yakov received after battling an angel.

וְהָשֵׁב אֶת הָעֲבודָה לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶךָ

We ask God to restore sacrificial order, the conventional translation of service. And yet, there is a broader definition as well, the word for prayer – avoda she b’lev CITE

As long as Jews have prayed, prayers are meant to face Jerusalem and the Beis Hamikdash, the spiritual center. It was the site of one of the most captivating stories in the Torah, Jacob’s Ladder.

The Torah tells how Yakov fled from his enraged murderous brother Esau to the house of his uncle Lavan, in far off Haran. Along the way, and in between places, Yakov put his head down for some rest and had a vivid prophetic dream:

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ – He had a dream; a ladder was planted on the ground, and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (28:12)

Jacob’s Ladder is a universal motif with many counterparts in mythology. It is known as an axis mundi — also called the cosmic axis, world axis, cosmic bridge, world bridge, cosmic pillar, world pillar, the center of the world, or world tree; and they universally serve as a connection between Heaven and Earth, a bridge between higher and lower realms. The axis mundi is almost always a center point, where blessings from higher realms descend to lower realms and disseminate to all. 

A bridge and ladder function in the same way, except that a bridge is for lateral movement, and a ladder is for vertical movement. There are two separate domains, and there is no way to move from one to the other; they are separated with distinct boundaries that cannot be crossed. A bridge or ladder crosses the gap, linking the domains so the disparate parts can interact.

The cosmic bridge works in the same way, expressing contact and correspondence between higher and lower realms – מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. In Jacob’s Ladder, angels ascend and descend – וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ – overtly symbolizing a kind of transfer, reciprocal interaction, and exchange of energy where Heaven comes to Earth, and Earth is elevated to Heaven.

Our sages identify the location of Yakov’s dream disparately as Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah, the Land of Israel, or imagining a diagonally aligned ladder, some combination of these. Still, the effect is the same – the cosmic bridge is at one of these spiritual centers, a place where Heaven and Earth can meet and blessing comes into the world. Legend has it that beneath the Beis HaMikdash on Mount Moriah, possibly the Dome of the Rock and the site of the Akeida, lies the Foundation Stone – אבן השתיה – the focal point and source of creation, itself tying intimately into the imagery of a source of blessing, connection, and expansiveness. 

The motif of a world bridge is recursive – once you know how to spot it, you see it everywhere. Our sages note how Sinai has the same numerical value as Jacob’s ladder – סלם / סיני – suggesting that the Torah is a kind of world bridge. The Midrash indicates that the sacrificial offerings were a world bridge; the altar is described as “of the earth” – מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה – and legend has it that the smokestack wouldn’t diffuse into the air; it rose in a straight line, straight up to the sky – a world bridge. Many have noted that the expression for prayer and voice also has the same numerical value as Jacob’s ladder – סולם / קול.

Our sages suggest that our homes and marriages are reflections of the Beis HaMikdash – both are called בית, and both are a spiritual center and foundation – and so, like the Beis HaMikdash, are themselves reflections of a world bridge.

The prophets called the Beis Hanmikdash beisi beis tefila

interface between physical and spiritual

Wherever we are, we steer our prayers to one place: the Jewish People’s and perhaps the world’s spiritual focal point and gateway. They centralize and pool; our prayers are not isolated in whatever exile we may be in.

We ask God to beat the system He created.

You can apply for a job; if you know the hiring manager, they might steer you to the finish line. Although the application process has a fixed process, the people who fix it have the discretion to modify it.

We ask God to make our prayer more beautiful than it is, to find some way to make it work for us.

Part of our appreciation of God is acknowledging that we can’t do anything without God; that’s what gives the prayer beauty and potency.

God can listen to a broken heart without words and hear us saying it as praise. This is how God does it, even if the prayer is mediocre or nonexistent from a simple Jew – just because they are a Jew. That’s enough and worthy of appreciation.

When you ask for an iPad, you ask for an iPad, but you don’t talk about the process of buying it. But when you thank someone for buying you an iPad, an elevated thank you will thank the process, for going out your way, shopping, ordering, trying, wrapping, etc.

Prayer or animals

Although prayer does appear obliquely or sporadically in the Torah, it is not the predominant mode of worship in the Torah or the ancient world the Torah appeared in, an era where animal sacrifice was a near cultural universal. Our sages went out of their way to teach that prayer doesn’t just appear in the Torah; prayer stands in as a direct replacement or substitute for the lapsed sacrifices of long ago.

Our prayers are replete with requests to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. However, authorities are divided on whether the future we yearn for heralds a restoration or replacement of animal sacrifice. While that remains speculative until we find out, it is probably fair to say that it is hard for people in the modern world to wrap their heads around animal sacrifice.

Today’s near cultural universal is that animal sacrifice is alien and weird, perhaps even disgusting and nasty. Most people don’t want to watch an animal get slaughtered; any arcane mysticism is hard to imagine over the blood and gore.

That leaves prayer in a bit of a void; prayer is a stand-in or substitute for animal sacrifice, and yet an animal sacrifice is hard to relate to in almost every conceivable way, so far removed as it is from our primary experience. Moreover, the Torah has long sections devoted to the different categories and kinds of sacrifice and their details and nuances; sacrifice is clearly the primary mode of worship in the Torah’s conception, so prayer seems second-rate.

Either way, prayer is hard to understand. If prayer and sacrifice aren’t connected, why bother with something the Torah doesn’t validate as having much significance? And if prayer is connected to sacrifice, what element of sacrifice do we even relate to?

The Torah opens the section on sacrifices by outlining a scenario where someone wants to bring an offering:

‘אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קרְבָּן לַהֹ – When one of you presents an offering for God… (1:2)

Although not readily obvious in translation, the Torah utilizes highly unusual language here. Rather than present the sensible scenario where one of you wants to bring an offering, it literally translates to when someone offers an offering of you, which is to say, literally of yourselves – אָדָם מִכֶּם כִּי־יַקְרִיב / אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

The Baal HaTanya notes that this reading suggests that at the earliest juncture, the Torah already indicates that as much it’s going to talk about animal offerings, it’s not about the animal at all; it’s about the part of yourself you’re willing to offer, and prayer would operate in much the same way – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the conventional notion of sacrifice isn’t really reflected in the Hebrew term – קרְבָּן. We think of sacrifice as giving something up when the Hebrew word actually means something more like drawing closer – קרב. You interact with the divine not with what you give up but by drawing close with what you have; in offering the material to God, you transform the material into the sacred.

God doesn’t need our stuff and can’t receive it in any tangible way; the Malbim teaches that all a person can ever offer is themselves, which mirrors precisely what the Torah calls for here – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם. The Sfas Emes explains that the notion articulated here is that sacrifice and prayer are about aligning ourselves and resources to God’s broader plan; prayer isn’t secondary to sacrifice; it is the same.

While the form of seeking out the divine may have changed over time depending on the zeitgeist, the substance has remained constant. At the root of all mysticism is a desire to connect with the divine transcendence, and our sages have long identified the inner world of the heart as the battlefield of spirituality – עבודה שבלב. So we can read the Yom Kippur atonement ritual that seems odd to modern sensibilities, yet it maintains relevance to our prayers because the substance transcends the form of the performative aspect; that God forgives humans who want to make amends, goats and string or not.

It’s not the form of how it appears so much as it’s about the substance of how it is – אחד המרבה ואחד ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.

As Moshe said to his audience, our Creator is always close, quite different from other gods they might have heard of who can only be invoked with specific rituals – כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱלֹקים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה’ אֱלֹקינוּ בְּכל־קרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו.

The Izhbitzer suggests that our subconscious hearts and minds hope and pray all the time. When you whisper “Please, God,” hope for the best, or wish that things turn out okay, those unspoken but very real thoughts are prayers that bring tangible wisps of warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, from which things can and will eventually grow – קָרוֹב ה’ לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.

As the Kotzker said, where can we find God? Wherever we let Him in.

Sacrifice, like prayer, was always about the inner world of the spirit, about opening your heart and yourself to the universe.

לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶךָ

Dvir has the same root as the word for speech – DBR / DVR CITE. It is a word associated with the threshold of the Holy of Holies in the Beis Hamikdash; the sanctuary is a place of communication, from Avraham to Moshe – vdibarti meil kapores

Hashem – desire my prayer; take it and elevate it into what it might be and ought to be. Take my one-sided prayer and make it suitable for the Holy of Holies; make it a two-sided dialogue.

Unanswered Prayers

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you just kept praying and didn’t stop?

Most people have had a time they desperately wanted something, that if they got it, they’d never ask for anything again; to resolve the issue, find the right one, make a recovery, for the thing to work out okay. People pray hard in those moments, with more intention and hope than all the other times the stakes aren’t so high.

Sometimes those prayers are fulfilled, and the perfect outcome materializes. There are countless books filled with such stories, and their popularity is a product of how inspiring they are and how they supply us with hope to not give up on our own dreams and wishes.

But what about all the other times when the hoped-for outcome doesn’t happen?

No one writes those books; no one would read those books. But it happens all the time.

It even happens to the best and brightest of us, to no less than Moshe himself. In his parting words to his people, he tells them how he prayed and prayed for God’s permission to enter the Land of Israel, the culmination of his life’s work and the only personal indulgence he ever asked for, but God bid him to stop. It wasn’t going to happen, and his prayers would remain unanswered; or at least answered in the negative, if that makes any difference.

Prayer isn’t a wish fulfillment scratch card game; unanswered prayers are a corresponding aspect of prayer that we must acknowledge, that some of them probably aren’t going to go exactly the way you’d like. For our intents and purposes, some prayers go to waste.

The Izhbitzer notes that all existence is wasteful. Entropy is part of all existence and our basic reality; the appearance of decay, randomness, uncertainty, and unwanted outcomes or outputs. Every interaction might have a desired or likely end goal or output, but there will be an inescapable by-product associated with it. Friction is a result of existing, where all effort takes a toll, the transaction tax of all things. In this conception, the Izhbitzer teaches, waste is not a bug; it’s a feature we need to reorient ourselves to.

Fruit and nuts have peels and shells, which we consider waste in terms of our goal of what’s edible; yet they’re fully functional in fulfilling their natural purpose of protecting the fruit. In reality, they are not waste matter in any real sense of the word; Parenthetically, this example deliberately utilizes the imagery of the shells and husks spoken of in Kabbalah – קליפה.

We are finite and limited; all we know is waste. You can be as energetic as you like, but in a couple of hours, you’ll be exhausted, your muscles will fatigue, and you will need to rest, eat, and sleep. When you sleep, your brain clears waste. When you eat and drink, your body will process the calories and nutrients, and you’ll need the restroom to pass waste matter. When you breathe, you breathe out waste gas, carbon dioxide. Our bodies and minds waste; all energy and matter eventually wastes.

It is significant that Pharaoh, the Torah’s great villain, claims to prove his divinity by pretending he did not pass waste; not producing waste indicates something genuinely supernatural, unlimited, and infinite.

The very first service of the day in the Temple was sweeping up the remnants from the day before:

וְהֵרִים אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וּפָשַׁט אֶת־בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים וְהוֹצִיא אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל־מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל־מָקוֹם טָהוֹר – He shall take up the ashes from the fire, which consumed the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments, put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. (6:3,4)

The altar had a fire perpetually fueled with logs by crews round the clock, with a constant stream of sacrifices burnt in whole or in part. Slaughtering and burning animals is messy; there is waste, and the day would begin with a simple dust-sweeping ritual. Some ash would be scooped up and brushed into the floor cracks, becoming integrated into the structure of the Temple. The rest of the ash got carried to a designated quiet spot and deposited and buried, to be left in state. It wasn’t a competitive or glamorous job; it was janitorial and practical, starting the day by cleaning the workspace.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this ritual symbolizes how today was built on yesterday; we are yesterday’s children. We honor the past by starting the day with an acknowledgment, incorporating an aspect of it into our being, but most of it has to be left behind to move on and start the day fresh. We must build on and respect the past, but we cannot spend too much time and energy focused on the rearview mirror. Each day brings new challenges, obligations, and opportunities, and we must ultimately leave the past behind us.

The Izbhitzer suggests that this ritual acknowledges and affirms our unanswered prayers, the orphan prayers that get left behind. The day begins with a recognition that even the holiest efforts experience waste, friction, transaction tax, fatigue, and wear and tear. Nothing is lossless, even the best things. Something is always lost in translation; not everything can go the way we hope. But that doesn’t mean the efforts went to waste; the ritual itself refers to the uplifting of this waste – תרומת הדשן.

Some of our efforts and prayers turn to ash; unanswered prayers are a thing, and the Temple service began at dawn by sweeping and disposing of yesterday’s ashes.

Something might be wrong with the road we hoped to travel, or it might be perfect but not meant to be; the hopes and dreams of yesterday might not be the road we must ultimately take. For good reason, we pray on Rosh Hashana to be like heads, not tails. Memory and identity can be burdens from the past; you can live perpetually as yesterday’s tail and never live freely in the present.

There are places, people, and things that come into our lives and shape us for better and for worse; you can only move forward from the place and person you used to be. Those hard-won lessons are precious and something to be thankful for; uplifting of ashes. Be thankful, and let them go gently, so you don’t get stuck; disposal of ashes. Hold on to the things that deserve to be held on to, but hold on out of a renewed commitment to today and tomorrow – not because of inherited commitments from the past.

The thing you prayed for might have been the right thing to pray for yesterday, but today’s service calls for a fresh start or at least a fresh analysis.

We must cherish and honor our past hopes and dreams but ultimately let go and release them to face each day anew.

וְאִשֵּׁי יִשרָאֵל –

Although the fires of service evoke the image of the offerings of old and animal sacrifices, it also means the fires of Israel, the sacred imperishable spark of flame in every Jew.

There’s a Yiddish expression that powerfully captures a vast amount of wisdom in just a few short words: the pintele Yid. It literally means the dot of a Jew, the fundamental essence of Jewish identity, and is perhaps related to the concept of the incorruptible soul – חלק אלוק ממעל. This imagery articulates clearly and plainly that no matter how far you try to distance yourself, there will always remain some tiny spark that lies buried deep within.

The pintele yid, your soul spark, cannot be lost or extinguished; it can only ever lie dormant. Fanning one little spark, just a little can light a whole forest on fire; it will wait patiently for as long as it takes to reignite and burst into flame once again, even if it takes generations.

וּתְפִלָּתָם

We want God to want us as a people, but also our prayers and attempts at connection. In addition to the sacrifices and spark of every Jew, we want to answer their prayers as well – וּתְפִלָּתָם.

It is linked by the conjunctive and to the previous phrase, the fires of Israel. We want God to accept the fire and sacrifice of every Jew, the prayers that come with fire, and also the prayers that don’t – וּתְפִלָּתָם.

וּתְפִלָּתָם is our prayers, and וְאִשֵּׁי יִשרָאֵל is our passion and fervor.

וּתְפִלָּתָם is the set prayers of Shacharis, Mincha, and Maariv, and וְאִשֵּׁי יִשרָאֵל are the spontaneous prayers we all make in the middle of our days.

The Beis Hamikdash had a holy fire that came from heaven and never went out, and yet the law is that a kohen has to light his own fire. There are two types of spiritual awakening – isarusa dileila and dilsata CITE. There are times when a flame of religious spirit and excitement descends from on high, and other times when an awakening is human-generated and self-starting; it’s not beautiful or eternal, but it’s mine – וּתְפִלָּתָם.

We acknowledge our shortcomings; our fire might be weak, but it’s ours and all we have. It might just be a faint spark, but it’s enough  – וּתְפִלָּתָם.

מְהֵרָה בְּאַהֲבָה תְקַבֵּל בְּרָצון.

Lovingly accept it; my prayer may fall short of my ability, and my desire may be too small.

But when someone loves you deeply, it doesn’t matter.

Imagine a young couple dating and agreeing they are ready to get engaged. A week goes by, and another, and he hasn’t proposed. She simmered quietly until it was too much and asked him why he hadn’t proposed. He may truthfully say that he didn’t have enough money for the diamond ring he chose and was ashamed to propose, but he missed the moment because it didn’t matter; she still would have said yes.

When we show up with our weak spark, flawed prayers, and imperfect track record, we ask God to accept it for what it is with love.

This blessing asks for God’s love and desire; when you love someone for a particular reason, and the reason stops being the case, it can be hard to maintain that love. When people are together because they’re attractive, what happens as they get older and looks fade? Yet when a couple has a deeper desire and bond, that desire can carry them a lifetime together and beyond; marriage includes the occasional argument and getting angry and upset. But in a healthy marriage, the couple will apologize and repair the relationship; a disagreement or mistake won’t derail their overarching desire and commitment to love each other.

God calls avraham ohavi CITE

There are times we aren’t so loveable, but we can ask God to make it so that we are still loveable – מְהֵרָה בְּאַהֲבָה תְקַבֵּל בְּרָצון.

וּתְהִי לְרָצון תָּמִיד עֲבודַת יִשרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ – And may you always want the service of your people

This can be a request that God desires the best Yisrael has to offer, but it can also more broadly be a request that God wants all of our work, everything that all of us have to offer.

If a girl thinks she’s not intelligent, maybe her parents try to help her feel good about herself. As she gets to the end of high school, they might say it’s okay if she doesn’t pursue higher education; it’s not for everyone. They might be right and doing what they honestly believe is suitable for her, but there might be nothing more hurtful than communicating that they don’t believe in her, confirming all her doubts and insecurities.

It is defeatist to ourselves to think all we can ever do is mediocre.

There are three levels to humility: a person who believes he’s nothing, a person who thinks they’re worthwhile, and a saint who believes he’s nothing.

second naivete

Our work is only acceptable if you accept it with love.

  וְתֶחֱזֶינָה עֵינֵינוּ בְּשׁוּבְךָ לְצִיּון בְּרַחֲמִים – May our eyes see as you return to Zion.

The simple reading here is that we want our eyes to Zion; we want to be there.

On a deeper level, one of the things that breaks people is the inability to find meaning in their pain and suffering. You can sit at the doctor while they give you injections and shots, tolerating all manner of pain with the awareness that this is an essential and possibly life-saving treatment. And yet, if someone on the street pricks you with a needle in the same way, it’s entirely different.

We don’t just want to see Zion with our own eyes; we like to see the process of the return to Zion, tying each calamity to a concrete step forward. Suffering from pain, deadened by pain, we need to see why. We ask Hashem to show us how His plan unfolds and develops and how events bring us closer.

There are things we are not supposed to see; the archetype for this is Lot’s wife. Sodom was doomed, but Lot deserved to be saved, and his loved ones too. They were not worthy, but they still got to tag along. They were warned not to look, but Lot’s wife defied the command and was lost with the city. You don’t get to look or feel proud when you get saved without deserving it because it wasn’t on your merit.

We want to look and see Zion on our merit without needing to ride on someone’s coattails or claim pedigree. We want our work to contribute so we can lay eyes on it and say we merited it; we were a worthy generation.

הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתו לְצִיּון – Who cause his presence to return to Zion.

The blessing doesn’t say that God returns His presence to Zion but that He causes it to return. The Hebrew form of hifil, the causative, denotes a forceful action; God can force it to people or places that aren’t especially deserving, even if it doesn’t belong there yet.

Some parts of Jerusalem are the paradigm of Judaism at its very best: prayer, study, charity, hospitality, and healing the sick. But some parts aren’t super compatible; would we say it’s natural for God’s presence to be at home in that environment?

We can hope to be a worthy generation, but the demographics aren’t especially favorable. Assimilation rates and numbers don’t suggest a great outlook; there is only so much outreach and education one can do, there are only so many capable individuals, and there is only so much funding. But God’s presence will come home to a place that isn’t home and make it home once more – הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתו לְצִיּון.

Moreover, we believe that God can’t actually move physically. When we talk about God’s movement, when we say a person is not worthy of Hashem’s closeness, Hashem is no further away or less accessible than He was. He isn’t further away from the person; instead, it’s the person who experiences distance from Hashem – vaya merochok CITE. But God has never moved; God is with us in every moment, in Exile, in Jerusalem, and waiting at the site of the Makom HaMikdash. imo anochi btazara – CITe.

God is in it for the long haul, loving us when we aren’t so loveable, forcing a return to us even if we fall short.

That’s why it’s the beginning of our eternal and infinite gratitude.

Kabbalas Tefila – Meta-prayer; the Response to Prayer

11 minute read
Straightforward

שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ. ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ. וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ. כִּי אֵל שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָתָּה. וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ. כִּי אַתָּה שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלַּת עַמְּךָ יִשרָאֵל בְּרַחֲמִים. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלָּה – Hear our voice, Adonoy, our God; spare us and have compassion on us, and accept our prayers compassionately and willingly, for You are Almighty Who hears prayers and supplications; and from Your Presence, our King, do not turn us away empty-handed, be gracious and answer us and hear our prayer for You hear the prayers of every mouth of Your people, Israel, with compassion. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who hears prayers.

Intro

Most of the blessings in the Amida are straightforward. Lord, please grant me wisdom; Lord, please grant prosperity; Lord, grant me health; and more generally, Lord, please help. We understand that that’s what prayer is.

Then we get to this blessing, and it’s not like that; this is a prayer for God to accept our prayers. It’s a prayer about itself: self-referential, tautological, and circular.

But if you ever stop daydreaming and find that you’re midway through your prayers, this is an excellent spot to pay attention.

שְׁמַע

Listen to our voice. Not hear, listen.

When the Torah describes the aftermath of the Exodus, it narrates how Yisro heard what happened and rushed to join up with Moshe and the Jewish People; hearing is passive, and listening is active. When someone pays attention to something, internal desire reaches outside themselves; when you hear something, it’s external that may or may not make a difference.

When Yisro heard what happened, it drove action and behavior; he paid attention and acted and behaved differently as a result – he listened.

We want God to listen, not hear

קולֵנוּ

When we pray, we say words, but we want God to listen past the words and hear our voice, the sound and tone, the pauses and stutters. The word for voice here literally translates as cry – קול – CITE.

We may not have been praying with deliberate focus and intent, and we may not understand that much, but no matter – hear our cry.

There’s a story of a father who came to Rav Shimon Schwab with a telegram from his son – “Dad, please send money.” The man bitterly complained about his demanding and ungrateful son, and Rav Schwab corrected him and reread it with deep feeling; “Dad, Please! Please, please, please! Please send money.”

Saying these words three times a day gets you close to a thousand times a year. Sometimes, the words fall flat, but occasionally, something is happening in your life that creates an urgency. They’re not the same bland, generic words as last week, so here and now, listen to my voice today.

When the Torah narrates the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt, echoed by the Haggadah and Seder, the Torah describes how the people groaned from their backbreaking labor – vayeianchu viyzaku vataal shavasam. Fascinatingly, the Torah describes what they did, that they groaned, but also what happened, that their cries rose to Heaven, and God heard them and considered them a stirring prayer.

They didn’t pray; they were sighing in pain and misery. And that was enough; those were the worthy prayers the story turns on.

Sometimes, we’re not praying; we’re crying and screaming. When rain gets cold, it turns to snow, but if it gets too cold, it won’t even snow; nothing will happen. Sometimes, even if that’s too hard, a person becomes numb from their experience. Sometimes, people can be so much pain that they can’t cry or speak anymore. Where is God in that moment? Why isn’t God doing more?

(Requires sensitive analysis)

And yet the Exodus story reveals that even proper words and thoughts are unnecessary; they screamed from their labor and God how hard it was for them.

שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ – Hear our cry, even if it isn’t a conventional prayer, even if it isn’t directed at Heaven or anywhere. See the pain, internal and external, and hear the voice that is in too much pain to cry.

ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ

hashem elokeinu

prayer without intention is like a body without a soul

hashem is kindness and compassion, elokeinu is din

חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ

Pity and compassion are different. Our bodies are physical and mundane matter, well designed but deeply flawed, like all things; pity our bodies with its weaknesses and predispositions. But our souls are designed for perfect, pure spirits; souls need mercy because souls can realistically always do better.

וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ

There are different ways to accept something.

When a teacher is excited to see your work, their desire suggests an expectation and belief that it will be high quality. When a teacher reluctantly accepts a submission with compassion and mercy, it indicates low-quality work.

There are times when everyone has prayed with all their heart and soul. You are not perfect, and no one is perfect, but those are perfect prayers, heartfelt, genuine, and earnest. Those are prayers God accepts with desire.

But then, some prayers are only acceptable with compassion and mercy. When a toddler presents their mother with a drawing of a car that’s just a scribbled mess, every good parent praises the child, thanks them for their thoughtful gift, and says how wonderful it is. Maybe it gets hung up on the fridge!

A parent who points out the unusual shape or proportions or the lack of wheels has done their child a terrible disservice that will probably cost many hundreds of hours of therapy down the line. Some interactions require compassion.

Of course, desire is better than compassion; it hurts if you tell a joke and only get a pity laugh. We want God to want our prayers; God desires righteous people or at least righteous prayers, but God can compassionately accept flawed people and imperfect prayers.

Mercy and strict judgment

The Kohen Gadol would enter the inner sanctum of the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, perform the ritual service, and say one single prayer, the only prayer ever uttered at Judaism’s holiest site. A lot of it was about rain.

Given the heavy agricultural dependency, we might reasonably expect the religious leader and representative of the entire generation to request the right amount of rain at the appropriate time and place, and it does.

But one line of the prayer confounds our expectations.

The prayer asks God to ignore the prayers of travelers who don’t want to get wet along the way -וְלֹא תִּכָּנֵס לְפָנֶיךָ תְּפִלַּת עוֹבְרֵי דְּרָכִים.

It’s arguably the most important day and ritual of the year; if we had to nominate one significant thing to pray for, we might think of several. But even if we have understood how rain is vital, why would ignoring travelers be the single most important thing we have to say about it?

The Alter of Kelm notes how powerful a sincere and heartfelt prayer must be to require counteraction by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies, even when it is transparently self-serving and contrary to the needs of the entire people at large. It may be selfish, but they mean it.

One of the most powerful phrases in the Torah is when God saw the young Yishmael dying in the desert. The Midrash imagines the angels arguing against divine intervention to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit, but they lose the argument because God evaluates things differently. God answers the boy based on where he is and the facts and circumstances as they are here and now – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם.

god hears the sincere cry of jews in Egypt

karov hashem lchol korav asher yikraehuu – as long as it’s an honest prayer

esau is awful, but he lets out one cry, and that cry haunts us for millenia

Some prayers hurt us, both other people’s and our own. Esau and Yishmael’s prayers hurt the Jewish People for the rest of history; someone is praying for customers to come to them, not you, their team to win, not yours. Sometimes, the thing you so desperately want is actually going to be terrible for you.

We ask for God’s infinite mercy to also utilize strict judgment – protect us from the prayers that hurt us.

what if we daven for things that hurt us?

כִּי אֵל שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָתָּה –

We ask God to hear the words, the prayers – תְּפִלּות. But we also ask God to hear more than that – וְתַחֲנוּנִים.

When a rabbi-looking fellow knocks on the door with a paper, you understand that he’s probably collecting for something, and if you’re in a charitable mood, you will answer and ask what he’s collecting for.

But if a young man, bruised and bleeding, taps faintly on the door, you don’t need to ask what happened because of a car crash or assault; it doesn’t matter; you know to call emergency services and that this person needs help.

The correct stance for prayer is to lean slightly with the head bent, right hand over the left hand, held together over your chest. The body language displays supplication, humility, respect, and deference.

We want God to see everything we don’t say – the groans, the emotions, even the silence – וְתַחֲנוּנִים.

The word for God used here is associated with God’s mighty kindness – אֵל. We ask God to kindly and powerfully listen, to find a suitable prayer where there isn’t one, or any prayer where there might not be.

R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once saw a Jew mumbling quietly in prayer and invited him over later that day. R’ Levi Yitzchak shook his hand and mumbled quietly to the man, who obviously didn’t understand. R’ Levi Yitzchak then spoke clearly and asked how he expected God to understand his prayers if he mumbled, but the man had a powerful rebuttal. A mother can hear her child crying from far away, and she can tell just from the cry whether her child is hungry, tired, or hurt.

Even if our words are slurred or stunted, listen with compassion – כִּי אֵל שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָתָּה.

וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ – dont turn us away empty handed

A prayer without proper intention is like a body without a soul – CITE

But we believe that merging the word with thought and intent is an unstoppable combination

(needs more work)

But we acknowledge our shortcomings; if we can’t do it correctly and we didn’t say it right, or the magic words or the proper formula, please listen anyway, and please don’t turn us away empty-handed – וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ –

(what does it mean for God to listen)

The Abrudraham compares this prayer to a starving beggar who dreams of a hearty meal; if he goes to the back of a restaurant, the staff might not give him a gourmet feast, but if they can give him some scraps and leftovers, that would be an excellent outcome for him as well. He doesn’t need much to be better off; there is a large spectrum in between, a range of possibilities between where he is and what he wants – וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ –

Maybe I don’t deserve all my wildest dreams, perhaps I don’t have the merit, maybe it’s not possible. But, please, give me something – וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ.

The Rosh Hashana prayers use imagery of banging the door down – dafaknu delasecha  CITE. We all need things, and if we can’t have what we need, let us have something in the alternative.

If they can’t be healthy, at least let the pain go away a little. If they can’t have a child, at least let them find the right treatments or adopt.

There are many paths in this world; if this door is closed, help me find the open one.

Sometimes the answer is no (needs heavy sensitivity and work)

When it comes to prayer, one of the common sayings is that God answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.

This communicates that a prayer has not been ignored, and the person has been heard. But while this relieves the sense of being ignored, it creates a sense of rejection; it’s quite possibly a cruel thing to say to someone who desperately wants something.

It’s probably not correct, either. While the exact mechanics of prayer are unknowable, the very idea of prayer is incompatible with outright rejection.

The Ishbitzer suggests that our hearts and minds’ subconscious hopes and dreams are prayers; when you so much as hope for the best, or that things turn out okay, or even whisper “Please, God,” those thoughts bring vitality into the world that affirm and sustain life and growth.

This is a spiritualized version of the law of conservation of energy; energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form of energy to another.

A prayer is something a human generates; it never goes to waste. The answer is never no, but the answer might be more like, not right now, or not like that – וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ.

It is wishful thinking to believe that the universe molds itself to our wishes; the universe is mind-bogglingly complex and enormous. But maybe a prayer brings you one step closer; maybe your prayer will not work for the thing you hope or in the way you want; perhaps it gets stored up and will work for something else or someone else. Maybe your descendants, in ways you can never imagine.

We believe this in other contexts – your life and existence are the fruits of your ancestor’s prayers; the return of Jewish people to the land of Israel and the revitalization of the Torah after the Holocaust is the fulfillment of generations of dreams and prayers.

The answer is never no, but the answer might be more like, not right now, or not like that. God holds Esau’s prayer for two thousand years – וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ.

Our prayers are meaningful, they matter – וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ.

. כִּי אַתָּה שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלַּת עַמְּךָ יִשרָאֵל בְּרַחֲמִים

This prayer goes well beyond our personal prayer and includes the prayers of the People of Israel. Individual prayers aren’t individual; the Amida prayers are pluralized, as most prayers are.

As others pray and have prayed for us; we pray for others, even those who don’t pray at all – כִּי אַתָּה שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלַּת עַמְּךָ יִשרָאֵל בְּרַחֲמִים

שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלָּה

All kinds of prayers count, however poor or weak. Using the broadest definition of prayer, it even includes screaming, groaning, crying, and silence.

God has told us to turn to God, even if we don’t mean it or feel it; that’s the universe God created, and that’s how the system works. There is nowhere else to turn but God, so if we uphold our end, God must respond- שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלָּה.

In a certain sense, that’s God’s job. The postal service delivers post everywhere in the country or everywhere in the world. They deliver to people who don’t pay them; the sender or government pays for the post; they still deliver because that’s their job.

There can be no such thing as a prayer that is not good enough to count because it is defined by the receiver, not the giver.

When two people are talking at once, it is hard to follow what each says; adding more people talking quickly becomes impossible. But God, as the receiver of prayers, unbundles each voice, focusing on each individual prayer, the hearer of prayer, not prayers – שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלָּה / TEFILOS CITE.

You can be at the Western Wall with thousands of people at the top of their voices; God hears each voice, as God himself speaks, with a small, still voice.

The Yaavetz encourages us to be honest and truthful about what we want and care about. Do we care so deeply about the anonymous couple yearning for a child or the lone soldier we don’t know? It can be difficult to be invested in something you are detached and removed from. But this is the place to be honest about what matters to us; good parents want to know what their kids care about.

This is the place for that: anything, in whatever language.

Let it be real.

A person who prays in shul with a minyan at sunrise, reading every word with the proper intent, has done a Rabbinic mitzvah; a person visiting a hospital room who wishes the sick person better has performed a full-fledged Torah mitzvah. However technical, this cuts to the very essence of what prayer is; the Torah says to talk to God constantly – btzaar lecha – CITE

Whatever you want or need, whatever matters to you, this is the place to express it.

The Teshuas Chein (check) suggests that not only do our prayers and the prayers of all people stack, but God can create a scrapbook of prayers, editing, cutting, and pasting a prayer supercut from this word, that moment, those people; a masterpiece.

We talk about God answering and accepting prayers; we don’t mention outcomes or results. This blessing doesn’t ask for a yes; it doesn’t ask God to do our bidding. It asks only for God’s compassion, not to turn us away empty-handed. In the same prayer, I ask God to accept prayer in mercy and to reject the ones that won’t work out. Regarding outcomes for us and the people we love, we can only place our trust in God, Master of all.

A childless husband came to Rav Shimson Pinkus and asked for a blessing; he and his wife had tried every treatment, and nothing had worked. Rav Pinkus told him to return at 3 am, which he did. Rav Pinkus told him to get in the car, and they drove out to the desert, the middle of nowhere, with only the car headlights under the night sky. Rav Pinkus told the man he could not help him but that out there, with no disturbances, he could tell God what he really wanted. Rav Pinkus told him to get out of the car, that he’d collect him in half an hour, and drove off. The man prayed, and Rav Pinkus came back. When he saw the man’s face, he noticed the man’s face was regular; he wasn’t done yet and drove off again.

Instead of thinking about the baby he wanted this time, he thought much bigger. He started thinking about what it felt like not to have a child every time his poor wife walked through the park and teared up seeing children playing. He remembered the awkward shuffle whenever someone innocently asked them how many kids they had: every bris, every bar mitzvah. And the man accessed all his accumulated anger and pain; he ugly cried. Why God? Why does it have to be like this? It is unbearable!

Rav Pinkus returned to collect him and saw the mess on the man’s face. He was done. Within a year, he was the guest of honor at the bris.

(Is this a true story? Does it matter? Stories like this happen, even if it’s not often, even if it’s not to everyone)

A person can do everything right, pray right, learn right, do right, be right and good, with all the merits, customs, practices, and blessings. But if you don’t invest your story into the words of your prayer, you haven’t prayed with your most authentic self.

Your story is part of your prayer; hear my voice.

Malchus Beis David – Kingdom of David

12 minute read
Straightforward

אֶת צֶמַח דָּוִד עַבְדְּךָ מְהֵרָה תַצְמִיחַ. וְקַרְנו תָּרוּם בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ. כִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּינוּ כָּל הַיּום . בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’. מַצְמִיחַ קֶרֶן יְשׁוּעָה – The seed of David, Your servant, speedily cause to grow and exalt his power with Your salvation, For Your deliverance we hope all day. and watch for Your salvation. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who causes to sprout the power of salvation.

Placement

The order in which the Amida was drafted is significant.

This is the fifteenth blessing, and it’s about the restoration of the crown to the family of King David, which our sages liken to the moon; the symbol of the kingdom of Israel is the lunar cycle.

The blessing on the new moon is the first mitzvah the Jewish people ever received, while still in Egypt, midrash says hachodesh hazah yihye lachem – rosh chodesh.

Newness etc

Our sages identify three ancestors with the crown of royalty: Avraham, Moshe, and David. And yet, nowhere in his story is he ever a king over anything. Outside the Jewish world of the Torah, a king is a title given to the person who holds the highest rank in the feudal order, wields powers of government, and exercises sovereignty over lands and people.

Although Avraham was never a king in a conventional sense, Avraham was the first to be called king – CITE. In our world, a leader who stands for anything other than God has perverted the office of the monarchy.

Moshe is also called a king, and his story is more aligned with the conventional definition of the king despite never claiming or wearing a crown. After one the times the Jewish People complained against him, he lamented to God that he’d never so much as taken a donkey from them – CITE. The Chasam Sofer explains that it is the monarch’s prerogative to levy taxes, and especially a percentage of plundered war spoils; the Jewish People left Egypt fabulously wealthy between what they were able to carry from Egypt and what they were able to salvage from the Red Sea, and Moshe had never taken a thing from them. In fact, in alignment with the Torah’s definition of a king who stands for God, Moshe has occupied himself with repatriating Yosef’s bones to uphold an ancient promise.

One thing Avraham, Moshe, and David have in common is they are high in the trait of humility. Avraham compares himself to dust and ash – CITE. Moshe says he is nothing – nachnu ma CITE. Our sages say David was not out for himself – les ley migamei lo klum CITE, symbolized by the letters of his name not being enclosed.

King David’s entire life is improbable. He was a shepherd boy who was persecuted and chased until he became king; once he became king, he was subject to multiple wars and attempted revolutions, and his health deteriorated significantly as he aged. Nonetheless, he perseveres and authors Tehillim, the book of Psalms. He is called the sweet singer of Israel. He made Israel sing so sweetly and accomplished this by living for others. He suffered so much, yet through his belief and prayer strength, he still just wanted people to praise Hashem.

Taking the comparison of the crown to the moon further, there were thirty generations from Avraham to Chizkiyahu, the last king of the House of David. Chizkiyahu was deposed and exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, who put out his eyes, extinguishing the moon’s light. King David himself was the fifteenth generation from Avraham, when the moon is at the height of its power. The numerical representation of the number fifteen is God’s name – YA CITE.

A reference to David is a reference to the idealized perfection of the crown and the kingdom of Israel. At the blessing for the new moon, the blessing of renewal and vitality, the blessing says that David, king of Israel, is alive and well – david melech yisrael chai vkayam CITE.

אֶת צֶמַח דָּוִד עַבְדְּךָ מְהֵרָה תַצְמִיחַ – The seed of Your servant David, speedily cause to grow

One of the things that stands out in this blessing is that it prominently utilizes agricultural imagery – let it grow; this is deliberate. Our sages identify one of the names of Mashiach as Tzemach – growing; growth is one of Mashiach’s essential traits and qualities; his overarching mission is to cultivate growth in the world, much like a plant.

If someone said Mashiach arrived today, could we get up and leave without making any arrangements or plans? What about work? School? Who’s going to finish that project?

The notion of a sudden switch to a new way of being is jarring because instant transitions are difficult and don’t work well; psychologists have shown that suddenly switching tasks dramatically reduces attention and engagement from context switching.

The redemption process isn’t sudden; it’s gradual, like the moon’s phases or watching a plant grow. The moon waxes and wanes and lights up the darkness of our world. It’s not as bright as the sun, but the sun is too bright for us to observe directly. Yet when the moon reflects that light, it is tolerable, and that’s what the age of Mashiach is like: the greatest amount of light we can tolerate.

Fast or slow – מְהֵרָה תַצְמִיחַ

This prayer appears to have a contradiction or paradox at its surface; shall it grow slow and steady or quick and rapid?

As the famous quote goes, some things go gradually, then suddenly.

Sometimes, you can be stuck on a problem, simmering and stewing, and you stay stuck for a while, and then it suddenly clicks, and you know what to do – gradually, then suddenly.

It can take time to get to the point where we can put our ego aside and let go of attachments. But once you get there, it doesn’t take long – gradually, then suddenly.

Imagine hacking through a jungle for days on foot to get to a clearing, and then a plane takes you home – gradually, then suddenly.

We pray for organic growth; it is not fair to demand more of yourself than you are able, and we ask God to do the same. But once you reach that point, step up – gradually, then suddenly.

Rocketry technology is moving fast, but if you watch the famous space rocket launches, the overwhelming majority of the launch vehicle consists of main engine and boosters. They augment the space vehicle’s takeoff thrust and only last for the first few minutes of launch; at this point, they drop and fall back to Earth once the fuel is expended. Following booster separation, the rest of the launch vehicle continues flight; it is tiny compared to the fully assembled launch vehicle.

But that shouldn’t be surprising; inertia is a powerful force, so the greatest effort is spent getting started – kol hatchalos kashos CITE. It is much further from the upper atmosphere to the moon, yet the force of breaking free from gravity with momentum is enough to make it the rest of the way. The first stages of breaking free are the most difficult.

There are moments when we see ourselves as far from where we could be, falling short of our goals or potential, which remain out of reach. But after those first few steps, the rest of the way comes easier and requires far less – gradually, then suddenly.

He needs help

In the way that Moshe wasn’t a redeemer until he marched into Pharoah’s palace and defied him, Mashiach himself was not born as Mashiach; he was also someone who emerged. In a sense, this prayer is for his personal growth so he can become the person we need. This is thematically similar to the blessing we say for the righteous – al hatzaddikim CITE

avdecha

The criteria for a fully-fledged Mashiach are staggering; Jewish belief is that no less than the entire planet would recognize his greatness and declare their allegiance. He would be the most powerful person in the world and the most powerful man ever lived. And yet, his crown is the kingdom of the House of David, ani avdecha ben amesacha – CITE.

With all his greatness, he is still a servant; it’s not about him; he comes to serve.

A seed is tiny yet contains the blueprint of an entire tree and species in its most elemental form. King David made himself small, wholly dedicated to serving God; Mashiach, as the scion of David, is the same.

The Rambam suggests that Mashiach is someone we only recognize with hindsight after the fact; the prophet talks about how humble ones the time has come, if you dont believe, look at the light – CITE. The notion that Mashiach himself entertains the idea that some might not believe is revealing and suggests that it’s not as obvious as we might think.

The legendary Rabbi Akiva believed that Bar Kochba was Mashiach; he wasn’t, or at least could have been, but didn’t complete the task. The eligibility criteria are staggering; Mashiach must be powerful, peaceful, a world-class diplomat, and scrupulously observant, in addition to doing his work in a conventional and non-miraculous manner. The only way to know his legitimacy is once he’s accomplished all the work and created a new world order.

It can be frustrating when we speak of Mashiach, going as we do from one difficulty to the next. It seems that a lot of history has happened in the last century; one famous quote suggests that there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. Our sages suggest that human civilization will last six thousand years, a thousand years parallel to each of the Six Days of Creation; the utopian age of Mashiach corresponds to the seventh day, the Shabbos of history.

If the age of Mashiach is Shabbos, that makes the time preceding it Friday afternoon. In the same way, Friday afternoon is hectic and frantic; the pace and speed of the sixth millennium are unparalleled. The technological difference between Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages is relatively insignificant; there might be better agricultural techniques and metallurgy, but those cultures would substantially recognize each other despite being more than a thousand years apart.

Yet, compared to just two centuries ago, perhaps even two generations ago, human civilization has progressed exponentially in every field: education, healthcare, technology, and transportation. The technological explosion is already something our ancestors would believe to be magic. Could we explain to them a space rocket or that you can hold the world’s knowledge in your hand? Could we explain to them advanced medicine? The most incredible leaps of human technological progress have happened in living memory, and the pace is increasing. It’s Friday afternoon, almost Shabbos; the world is quickly getting ready.

When the prophet talks about the return of exiles on the wings of an eagle, we can understand that taking a plane to Israel is a plausible fulfillment of that vision. When our sages talk of Mashiach educating the world, we understand that rather than taking a sailship to the ends of the Earth, the power and scale of mass media and instant communication mean a viral video can do the job.

We are learning the secrets of the universe, and history is coming to an end. The world order of the past is not the one we have today, and even that is changing. Gradually, then suddenly. There is a vast network of roots, and one day, the shoots will burst through.

Our sages note that Mashiach can in its time i will hasten it b’ita achishena – CITE. But that’s also a paradox; will he emerge when he’s supposed to or before? Our sages teach that it’s both; redemption comes early for a worthy generation and, otherwise, right on schedule.

. וְקַרְנו תָּרוּם בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ

Mashiach arrives with a great shofar, so we ask to raise the great horn of redemption.

But beyond the plain translation of horn, there is an embedded meaning of power and glory. The way horned animals use their horns to fight, a horn symbolizes power, glory, and strength. Horns are the most prized part of an animal, which is why hunters historically mounted them as trophies.

The kingdom of Mashiach will be defined by truth and kindness, wisdom and peace. Our world today has many redeeming qualities but many shortcomings as well. In a world of greed and lies, celebrities, consumption, and pollution, we ask to raise the flag of Mashiach. We can try to be humble, modest, and grateful, but it’s a battle we cannot win; the influences of the dominant culture are irresistibly powerful.

There will be no greater miracle than our world turning to focus on truth and kindness, wisdom and peace – וְקַרְנו תָּרוּם בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ.

בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ

The plain sense is that we depend on God for help and salvation; that’s always true.

But there is a more profound implication here: God must act to save Himself. Humans are created in the image of God and steward God’s world. To the extent that God wants something from our world, an out-of-step world is a disgrace to God’s honor; God must act for His own sake.

כִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּינוּ כָּל הַיּום

Our sages teach that when we go to Heaven, they ask the person if they hoped and waited for salvation – tzipisa liyehoshua – CITE.

There are countless stories about the greats who lived with this daily. The Chafetz Chaim had a Mashiach go bag; all his essentials were good to go at a moment’s notice if Mashiach arrived. There’s another story about the Chafetz Chaim, who had made plans to go somewhere with his son-in-law, who didn’t show up at the time and place they had made up; someone told the Chafetz Chaim that he’s here in town, and the Chafetz Chaim jumped with excitement. Where? At your house! My house?! Running into the house, the Chafetz Chaim was disappointed only to find his son-in-law; when he heard “he’s here,” he thought Mashiach, not son-in-law.

A poor working Rebbi in America dreamed of moving to Israel, but life happens, and that isn’t something everyone gets to do. They wanted to have something for when they moved, so his wife had a special broom in their closet for when they moved to Israel; our sages teach that Israel has special dust you could kiss – you can’t use your ratty old American broom for that!

Even if we don’t deserve Mashiach out of merit, wishing and hoping for his arrival alone counts a long way towards it. We have faith that he will come, and we have hope in our faith – but faith is not knowledge that Hashem will send Mashiach, but more than that. Hoping for Mashiach to live every day to its optimum, that every day that passes us by, we are actively bringing Mashiach closer.

Action

When you want to get into a school, yeshiva, or job, you don’t sit back and hope. You apply! And you try to pull strings, make calls, leverage some influence. You don’t just hope, you act. Our spirituality operates in much the same way: what are you doing? How do your hopes and beliefs translate to action in the real world?

The Shaarei Teshuva notes how this isn’t simply a prayer for salvation through Mashiach but a much broader request for every kind of redemption we need, big and small – כִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּינוּ כָּל הַיּום. As such, this is the perfect place to think about every challenge, difficulty, and problem; this is a paraphrase of the reference to all salvations – lishiuuascha kivisi hashem.

כָּל הַיּום

When did you last ask God for something outside of formal prayer? A natural, unstructured, organic prayer. For most people, it’s before a meeting, test, date, or doctor visit; in moments of crisis, we feel vulnerable and powerless against irresistible forces.

When was the last time you gave God an organic thank you? For most people, it’s when God fixed the crisis.

We cannot get through the day without the Creator unless we take everything in our lives for granted. Breathing, eating, digestion, everything to do with our health, loved ones, achievements; nekavim chalulim / shebchal eis erev vavoker CITE.

Taking this view, we shouldn’t ask for salvation when we need it; we should yearn for salvation every moment of every day – לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּינוּ כָּל הַיּום.

If that sounds demanding or needy, it’s because our premise is mistaken; God isn’t the God of hard times, but all times. God observes and supervises the long in-between moments where everything is slow, and nothing happens.

And that’s how redemption is – it grows slowly, not suddenly. Watching grass grow is painfully slow, and watching the moon shift phases is painfully slow. At any given moment, it doesn’t look like anything is happening.

When we beat ourselves up for not growing as fast as we want or could, this blessing reminds us that that’s what growing is like – slow. If you look up close, nothing is happening. But check in next week, next month, next year, in five years, ten years, and things can look very different.

It is worth taking the long view and intentionally planning what kind of partner, spouse, child, parent, or friend we want to be because although progress is slow, the process of growth is actively happening every moment.t

baruch ata hashem matzmiach keren yeshua

The blessing concludes by combining all three parts of blessing – growth, the horn, and salvation. Taking them together, this is a blessing for the things that are good about us to grow into our salvation.

Our sages suggest that angels first said this blessing when the Jewish People went through the Red Sea – matzmiach keren yeshua.

Our sages identify that moment, not one moment before; not at the burning bush, not at Moshe telling his people they would be saved, not at Moshe defying Pharoah, and not at the Ten Plagues. These could all conceivably be beginnings, yet are not the moment the angels sing about the beginning of salvation.

When we leave Egypt and impurity, that’s the end of something bad, which is great. But this blessing is not about removing the bad but elevating the good.

A horn is the thing an animal fights for its life and future with

A person with the ability for Torah who never follows through because of bullying
stopping the bully isn’t the beginning of his greatness.

(This contradicts the teaching of angels at the sea)

The moment the Jewish People see the last Egyptian die at the Red Sea, they are free, and that’s the moment they can start.

While immersed in negativity in the wrong environment, you haven’t broken through yet or begun to realize your potential. Mashiach is the paradigm that unleashes potential.

The word Mashiach is related to the word for Moshe, who is named for his adoptive mother drawing him from the water; Mashiach is just like Moshe – mash / Moshe CITE. Mashiach draws out human greatness and vitality – Mash Chai CITE.

We all have mitzvos and other things we try but don’t succeed at. On a personal level, we say to Hashem that we lay the groundwork, but we ask that Hashem nurture it and help us – because, as we said, we can’t help Hashem save us, and He doesn’t need us to. We can’t do everything on our own, on a personal level, or on a national level to bring Mashiach.

We can’t do it on our own. We need Hashem.

Three times a day, we ask for the things that are good about us to grow into our salvation. Live your life believing it can happen, and make the changes it would require if that were true.

Binyan Yerushalayim – Rebuilding Jerusalem

11 minute read
Straightforward

וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב. וְתִשְׁכּן בְּתוכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ. וּבְנֵה אותָהּ בְּקָרוב בְּיָמֵינוּ בִּנְיַן – עולָם.- וְכִסֵּא דָוִד מְהֵרָה לְתוכָהּ תָּכִין. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, בּונֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם And to Jerusalem, Your city, return in mercy, and dwell therein as You have spoken; and rebuild it soon, in our days, as an everlasting structure, and the throne of David, Your servant may You speedily establish therein. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who builds Jerusalem.

A link in the chain

One embedded assumption in prayer is a sense of deficiency or lack; we want something. Many blessings are intuitive; it’s obvious why we need wisdom, health, repentance, redemption, and prosperity. We know what those things are and what they mean; we understand that life gets complicated fast without them.

But what might Jerusalem rebuilt mean? It’s not something we have ever seen, and while we have many abstract ideas about what it could be like, it’s not a concrete concept we fully understand and relate to.

If nothing else, Jerusalem is being rebuilt right now. The amount of construction, investment, and redevelopment in Jerusalem is unprecedented.

But that’s not what we mean when we ask for Jerusalem to be rebuilt.

The land of Israel features in our books from the very outset of Jewish history. Jerusalem is the center going back to the beginning; it’s believed to be the center point of creation, the place Noah’s ark landed, the place Avraham bound Isaac, and the focal point of the religion for millennia. Jerusalem’s importance to Christianity is peripheral, and at least a thousand years later, its significance to Islam is also peripheral, and at least fifteen hundred years later. Jerusalem isn’t one of our holy places; it’s the only one, really. It’s not a new thing; it’s what generation upon generation of our ancestors were promised, yearned for, and dreamed of.

We might not fully understand what Jerusalem rebuilt is, but they did.

Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov counted on God’s promise for the Land of Israel; setting foot inside was the only thing Moshe ever wanted; it’s what Yehoshua prays for, what the exiles pray for, what Mordechai hopes for and works towards.

Some things are part of us that we don’t get to know. When grandparents live far away or overseas, it is difficult for the new generation to have any degree of familiarity with them, and this was especially true in the days before video or phone calls; snail mail was the best there was, and before that, even less. Even today, it is difficult to comprehend how life in pre-war Europe truly was, and that wasn’t even so long ago; there is a whole life and world that we will never know.

And yet, when a grandchild loses a grandparent they never knew, they’ll still be sad; because their parents are sad, they know what they lost. The loss of European Jewry is unfathomable for people born after the years of darkness and fire, yet we understand that the loss is enormous, and that for the people who did know, they lived with a void that never went away.

While our sadness isn’t precisely directed at the thing itself, we have a vague enough understanding to be directionally accurate, and we can also be sad by the transitive property, our awareness of the reaction by people who were deeply familiar with it.

We might not have a complete understanding of what Jerusalem was to fully understand what a rebuilt Jerusalem might be, but our ancestors did.

Jeremiah was so devastated at the loss of Jerusalem that he tried to stay in the smoldering ruins; the survivors had to force him away with them. There is a law to cover knives when saying the blessings after the meal; several blessings are about the loss of and rebuilding of Jerusalem, and one person was so distressed by grief that he stabbed himself.

It’s not a trivial blessing; someone living with grief always feels something missing, even as if life goes on. As life resumes, there may not be an unhealthy and constant preoccupation, but it’s always there.

One prayer won’t rebuild Jerusalem, but stacking them all together will.

וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם – What is the etymology of the word Jerusalem?

Jerusalem is a noun, the name of a place, but names in Hebrew aren’t like names in other languages, not just an arbitrary string of sounds. In Hebrew, names are meaningful, a concept called nominative determinism, the idea that a name describes some essential quality or predisposition.

As brunch is to breakfast and lunch, Jerusalem is a portmanteau, a blend of two other words that combine their meanings. The root words are seeing or fear and awe – YIRAH, and peace or perfection – SHALEM.

Taken together, the city’s name suggests that it is built on peace and fear of Heaven; it follows that when the inhabitants are no longer godfearing, or peace is fractured by hatred, the city can no longer stand.

וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם – Plural

world bridge, jacob’s ladder, axis mundi

The second explanation is that ירוּשָׁלַיִם is a plural word. This is because there are two Jerusalems. There is the ירוּשָׁלַיִם של מעלה – the Heavenly Jerusalem, in addition to the ירוּשָׁלַיִם של מטה – the Jerusalem on Earth. When we are worthy of it, the two Yerushalayim co-exist together, which is what occurs in times of peace and harmony. So we daven וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם – we want Hashem to reside in both, the של מעלה and the של מטה.

not yerushleim – it’s pluralized

there are two

the Jerusalem above, and the Jerusalem below

as above, so below

correspondence

King David designs Jerusalem to mirror his understanding of upper Jerusalem

if the lower one is full of sin and hatred and empty rituals, the city is sticks and stones and can be destroyed

we want our Jerusalem linked to the heavenly one

The order of the blessings is sequential and thematically follows each other.

The first letter, the vav, means “and” – it connects what precedes to what follows. There are several explanations of what this is connected to.

The first is that it is related to תְּקַע בְּשׁופָר גָּדול – where we ask Hashem to bring an end to the Exile so all the people can return to Israel, and we are now asking for the place to which we return, ירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ,  to be rebuilt.

conjunctive vav – and

vav literally means hook

connects to what came before

connect to teka bshofar

There third explanation, by R’ Yisroel Reisman, that וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם continues from עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים. The Yerushalayim of today, of bars, restaurants, and shopping, is not the Yerushalayim we daven for. We want the Yerushalayim of tzaddikim back.

עִירְךָ – Your City

The blessing is not simply about Jerusalem, but Jerusalem, God’s city; this suggests the possibility of a Jerusalem that isn’t God’s city. When it’s a Jerusalem that isn’t god-fearing or a Jerusalem of argument and strife, it’s not God’s city.

As long as communities fight each other over nonsense, call each other parasites or godless, and throw rocks and hate, that’s not the Jerusalem our ancestors dreamed of.

Some communities say a prayer for the State of Israel and call it the beginning of the flowering of redemption – REISHIS. Whether it is or isn’t, there’s only one way to find out; who knows if it’s the beginning before we see the end? But if we believe there’s an end, isn’t it plausible that this is what the beginning of the end might look like? Most of Jewish history is written in blood; modern antisemitism isn’t so bad when you compare it to massacres, ethnic cleansing, genocide, expulsions, and systematic persecution. If you showed most of the Jews of those times what life is like for the Jewish People today, they’d probably call that the beginning of redemption.

But it’s essential to understand that the Jerusalem of high-rise apartment buildings and the Jerusalem of boys and girls laughing and playing in the streets of Jerusalem are great, but they’re not the goal.

We don’t want the Jerusalem of apartment developers or the Jerusalem of fine dining; we don’t want the Jerusalem of judgment and hatred. We want the Jerusalem of holiness and spirituality, peace, and fear of Heaven – וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ.

it’s not just a place to be safe

this blessing makes clear that we want more than safety – we want god’s return

the return of spirituality and presence to the world

the way to safety is through spirituality

invest in security, but invest in education, charity, communal infrastructure

the world has been a scary place for a long time

maybe always

baal haturim

avraham has yitzchak and yishmael

torah says kings of yishmael before toldos yitzchak

baal haturim says the kings of yishmael will fall before Mashiach comes

בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב – return with mercy

Jerusalem is associated with God’s presence; the prophet Jeremiah describes God’s departure from Zion in anger  – ki al api val chamosi hoysi li ir hazos.

This prayer asks not just for God’s return but for an undoing of God’s departure – mercy, not anger.

Our sages have long reflected on eschatology, the subject concerning the end of days, the end of history, and the utopian era of Mashiach. There are many prophecies, allusions, and interpretations of what they might mean. Taken together, they reflect the range of possibilities that Mashiach’s arrival could mean.

The most fundamental difference between approaches is that Mashiach’s arrival can be quick and easy or drawn out and painful, a smooth transition or a turbulent shift – רַחֲמִים or דין.

The resurrection of the dead, gathering the exiles, return to Israel, restoration of the monarchy, world peace, and an undying era of wisdom and enlightenment sound spectacular! But this is, perhaps, preceded by a cataclysmic world war and apocalypse beforehand; no one wants that.

We want the return in mercy – בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב.

Moreover, this prayer maintains no false illusions about our greatness; it suggests an admission and recognition that we all have work to do. God will only come back in mercy when we act in mercy. When we care about our brothers and sisters and help them care for each other, we can ask God for compassion and mercy.

When you see someone make a mistake, you can judge them, write them off, or look at them with mercy – they’re not perfect, nor am I. God will only return in mercy when we act with mercy and can build a city of peace where mercy is the norm.

That’s not to say there would be no room for disagreements; every argument is about something, not nothing. There can only be a lack of dispute when there’s nothing to disagree about and nothing to fight for. But the Torah is something; as soon as morality and inclinations exist, there is a right thing to stand up for and fight about.

But there’s a way to disagree.

It’s sad and ironic that people who can be so meticulous about one mitzvah or several let others fall by the wayside; sometimes, the people who look like they keep the Torah the most are the most guilty of not respecting others. Hillel taught that the Torah’s Golden Rule is don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you; R’ Akiva said it is to love your neighbor; Ben Azzai suggested it was that humans are created in God’s image. Someone rude or nasty to others, for the best reasons, hasn’t missed out on one mitzvah; they have missed the whole Torah.

pluralism

two jews, three opinions, one heart

וְתִשְׁכּן בְּתוכָהּ

Our people have said this prayer for centuries if not millennia; if we’re still asking for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, it hasn’t happened yet. We might not deserve it yet; we might not have prayed enough, or it might not be the right time.

But it’s not all or nothing. The Vilna  Gaon explains that God’s presence is not contingent on rebuilding Jerusalem.

When someone receives a terrible health diagnosis, they might track down the doctor doing cutting-edge medical research and clinical trials. Is it approved yet? Is it ready for testing? The answer might be no, and the patient will keep checking. Eventually, the patient might say he is happy to wait until human trials are approved, but it hurts today, so what can he do meanwhile to bridge until then?

The final redemption is excellent, and that might not be for right now, but God’s presence with us will take us pretty far – וְתִשְׁכּן בְּתוכָהּ

If our prayer isn’t answered in full, let it be answered in part; we might recognize it in the yeshivas, seminaries, shuls, and schools full of people from all over the world seeking to understand – וְתִשְׁכּן בְּתוכָהּ.

כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ – you promised us!

we daven with that faith

We affirm that Hashem told us He would rebuild Yerushalayim, and we depend on this. It is not possible that Hashem would not keep His word.

We are saying that we have perfect faith in what Hashem told us.’

god speaks truth and straightness; world made with truth,

cite promises

וּבְנֵה אותָהּ בְּקָרוב בְּיָמֵינוּ – we want it in our day, in our lifetime

We do not want to wait until tomorrow or for our grandkids to see the day. We want Jerusalem rebuilt in our days, in our time.

But there’s something more to Jerusalem rebuilt in our days – בְּיָמֵינוּ; we want Jerusalem built with our days – בְּיָמֵינוּ.

When the Torah describes Avraham’s death, it says he died with all his days fully accounted for – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים; the Zohar takes this to mean that he literally died with his days, making every day count, with a similar teaching about Sarah, every day brimming with fullness – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

Every day has downtime in between moments. Eating, sleeping, resting, daydreaming. The greats are also human; they also do all those things, but they do them differently.

A student and sage both make a blessing and eat an apple; the student asks what makes the sage a sage. Says the sage, a student makes a blessing to eat an apple, and a sage eats an apple to make a blessing. Teachers often tell students to eat and play sports so they can study better; it’s something real.

Redemption is built with our merits; every good deed is a brick. Shir Hashirim talks about a palace made of incredible engineering and design – inside is paved with the love of the daughters of Zion – CITE. In this conception, redemption is a physical manifestation of the human connection to God and each other. Every nasty comment and selfish act destroys; every kind word and good deed builds. Perhaps we may even be able to point to our own bricks!

We ask that our days be fit for use to rebuild Jerusalem; use our days –  וּבְנֵה אותָהּ בְּקָרוב בְּיָמֵינוּ.

בִּנְיַן עולָם

There was a first Beis HaMikdash; there was a second.

We don’t want a third; we want the last. No one needs a temporary fix that will burn again; build one that will never disappear or be destroyed.

Build one that will last forever – בִּנְיַן עולָם.

But not just for all time – עולָם, but that will also be for the world, all people in all places – עולָם.

CITE

beisis beis tefila lechal hammim

lmelech al kol haaretz

– וְכִסֵּא דָוִד מְהֵרָה לְתוכָהּ תָּכִין

This prayer contemplates three things: Jerusalem, the Beis HaMikdash, and King David’s throne, and the throne is part of both. Only one person can sit in the Beis HaMikdash; the king descended from King David. One of the late kings of Israel, not descended from King David, sat down in the Beis Hamikdash, and the sages were too frightened to speak up; it was the beginning of the end.

This is the place of God’s presence; this is a prayer for the return of how things ought to be.

Peace. Seeing one another. Fear of Heaven.

There is a mystical teaching here as well. Many key figures in Judaism are identified with multiple names; each name suggests a different identity. One of Mashiach’s names is David; this identifies him as the rightful heir of the House of David. In this light, it’s not a prayer for the symbolic return of David but the literal occupation of the throne by David – וְכִסֵּא דָוִד.

Going a step further, the Arizal teaches that the word for throne is a codeword – כִסֵּא. This makes intuitive sense for the simple reason that God can’t sit down. When we use the word throne, we mean the thing that makes the person in it a monarch. In the eschatological teachings of our sages, there are two Mashiachs; everyone familiar with the concept knows of Mashiach ben David, but his arrival is prefigured by the groundwork of another Mashiach, Mashiach ben Yosef.

For many complex reasons, these individuals represent powerful archetypes of redemption. Still, a prominent element of this phase is that Mashiach ben Yosef paves the way for and enables the last redemption and dies in a great battle. In other words, we might see he is the thing that makes Mashiach ben David the monarch – כִסֵּא. On this reading, this prayer can be taken as a request to strengthen Mashiach ben Yosef, that he live – וְכִסֵּא דָוִד מְהֵרָה לְתוכָהּ תָּכִין.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, בּונֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם – Blessed are You, Hashem, Who builds Jerusalem

Interestingly, this blessing ends in the present tense, not the future tense, which further suggests that this rebuilding is already underway and ongoing; every act, prayer, mitzvah, kind word, and good deed every day is counted and shaped into a brick.

On the destruction of the second Beis haMikdash, our sages suggest the angels sang a song about how God chose Zion – CITE. Yet our sages suggest that at the culmination of the final redemption and Jerusalem rebuilt; the angels will sing the same song, how God chose Zion – CITE.

If you think about it, a song about choosing or desiring Zion makes sense as the song of Jerusalem rebuilt; but destruction is the opposite of those things, so why is it also the song of destruction?

Our sages teach that on Shabbos; we cease all creative work, one form of which is demolition, specifically for constructive purposes; we recognize that demolishing an old house to develop an apartment building is constructive.

When God was destroying, it was a reciprocal form of building, destroying the empty husk of a failed Jerusalem already lost to lay the foundation of the real thing, a place God’s presence would dwell – and the angels sang how God chose Zion.

Our sages teach that whoever mourns Jerusalem will merit to see it rebuilt. We can be the people who didn’t have any intention or the people who built Jerusalem.

Taking it all together

When God sends us debilitating problems, challenges, setbacks, failures, and depression; know that not always, and not for everyone, but the possibility exists that it can be a variant form of building Jerusalem, breaking it down to make it the way it’s supposed to be.

This phase, sometimes called the dark night of the soul, can be liberating on the other side, dissolving ego or attachments to things that don’t serve us.

May God see our prayers, see our pain, see us trying to build bridges, be proud of us, and see the mercy. May we be the generation to see redemption.

Tzadikkim – The Righteous

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עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים וְעַל הַחֲסִידִים. וְעַל זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. וְעַל פְּלֵיטַת סופְרֵיהֶם. וְעַל גֵּרֵי הַצֶּדֶק. וְעָלֵינוּ. יֶהֱמוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ. וְתֵן שכָר טוב לְכָל הַבּוטְחִים בְּשִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת. וְשים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם לְעולָם וְלא נֵבושׁ כִּי בְךָ בָטָחְנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מִשְׁעָן וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים – Upon the righteous, upon the pious, upon the elders of Your people the House of Israel, upon the remnant of their scholars, upon the true proselytes, and upon us, may Your mercy be aroused, Adonoy our God. Grant bountiful reward to all who trust in Your Name in truth; and place our lot among them, and may we never be put to shame, for in You we have put our trust. Blessed are You, Hashem, Support and Trust of the righteous.

Overview

Everyone thinks to pray about the sick, the child in the community, the young mother, the rosh yeshiva, and the wounded soldiers.

But there are so many people we don’t typically give a moment’s thought to, the kind of people who might fall under the radar otherwise. These people are not especially visible, yet they contribute inestimable value to Jewish communities everywhere. They deserve our prayers and perhaps recognition and support, and it helps everyone when they have the things they need to continue their essential work.

עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים – the righteous

The root of the word for righteousness, Tzaddik, is Tzedek, conventionally translated as justice – צדק / צַדִּיק; a righteous person is someone who seeks out, pursues, and upholds justice.

In this prayer, we request not just reward but compassion and mercy for them – יֶהֱמוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ. It’s not easy to uphold justice and righteousness in public. Think of any rabbi or community leader in public view; they are constantly scrutinized and judged for everything they say and do. So we ask God to treat them with compassion and mercy, but it’s probably something we should offer such people as well.

You don’t have to be perfect to be righteous.

Righteousness and piety aren’t the same; piety and saintliness are more like justice and righteousness. Righteousness doesn’t mean perfection; our sages teach that apart from seven limited exceptions, there has never been such thing as a righteous person who never sinned or made a mistake – CITE.

The technical definition of a righteous person is someone whose merits outweigh their sins. It’s not a trivial status; to some extent, God is more exacting with righteous people.

However, the prophet Chabakuk uses a far more expansive definition of righteousness; a righteous person is someone who lives with faith – צַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה. That is to say, a righteous person is not defined by perfection but by the moments they choose to live with faith. This definition is broad enough to include someone who has made many mistakes but is simply trying to improve today.

R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach went a step further and suggested that there could be a notion of a righteous person in a particular regard – tzadik ldavar echad- implying the inverse idea of a person wicked in one specific regard.

וְעַל הַחֲסִידִים – Saintliness

A saintly person living with piety is someone who goes beyond the obligations of the letter of the law – חסִיד. It’s not someone who does an extra mitzvah but someone who does the mitzvah in an extra manner. Beyond the Torah’s specific obligations, a saintly person attempts to do the right thing, what he understands God would want him to do.

Our sages give an example of some workers who negligently broke a barrel belonging to Rabbah Bar Bar Channah, who seized their tools as collateral to repair the damaged property. The workers went to Rav, who instructed Rabbah Bar Bar Channah to return the collateral, and he did. The workers then complained that they worked all day without pay, and Rav instructed Rabbah Bar Bar Channah to pay them despite doing a lousy job. he did this because Rav explained that it was the right thing to do, above and beyond his legal obligations – לְמַעַן תֵּלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ טוֹבִים וְארְחוֹת צַדִּיקִים תִּשְׁמֹר. כִּי־יְשָׁרִים יִשְׁכְּנוּ־אָרֶץ וּתְמִימִים יִוָּתְרוּ בָהּ (Mishlei 2;21,22).

There are specific criteria for such things; it’s not a free-for-all. If a man sees a woman drowning but won’t save her because he won’t touch a woman, he is wicked, not to mention stupid. Our sages note that fools can never be saints – אין עם הארץ חֲסִיד. A saintly person is someone who has learned enough to know how to behave.

However, the risk of being too careful about one thing can lead to lost opportunities with other things for another; in their quest to do the right thing, they may inadvertently do the wrong thing.

וְעַל זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל – The wise

Like in English, the Hebrew word for sage has connotations of age. And yet, our sages teach that the word is a condensed word for someone who has acquired wisdom – ze kana chachma. This definition can mean anyone wise, from sages to scholars; the Haggada famously records how Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was a sage while still a teenager.

But at the most basic and practical level, anyone who has ever taken responsibility for the community can freely confirm that worrying about the Jewish People is difficult and stressful; it ages you. In the plainest and most literal sense, evenlay leaders who build and run communal organizations become sages – זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל.

On Shabbos, Jewish communities across the world say a prayer for the people who faithfully involve themselves in the needs of the community with faith, even when the community doesn’t recognize or appreciate them – עוסקין בצרכי צבור באמונה.

Sometimes, good people stand alone.

One of the most challenging parts of leadership is that it is lonely. Few know the struggles, late nights, calls, and meetings required by community involvement. The public sees a yeshiva or a charity, but who sees the human cost invested in the organization? The hours, the stress, the fundraising, the bureaucracy, the politics, and the people. It takes so much to build, mostly invisible and thankless work.

Moshe Rabbeinu is unanimously heralded as the greatest man of all, the faithful shepherd

who chooses Jewish People repeatedly, standing up to God on multiple occasions. Yet the people turn on him frequently, only ever a meal or two away from cursing him and wishing he’d never come along.

After losing his patience and hitting a rock instead of speaking to it, God determines that Moshe will not set foot in the Land of Israel; he will never cross the finish line of his life’s work. The punishment is severe for a crime that doesn’t seem so bad; this is an example of the exacting level of scrutiny the righteous and saintly can be held to.

Regardless, when the end came, Moshe asked God to change his mind, the one personal indulgence he asked for, the only thing he ever wanted for himself after a lifetime of public service and self-sacrifice, after putting it all on the line for his people. Apart from noting that God refuses, interesting in itself, we should notice that after all Moshe has done for the Jewish People, he stands entirely alone in his prayer, no one stands with him, and no one is fighting for him.

Leaders know too well that leadership is lonely. This blessing is a prayer for them, but they deserve our actual support as well; don’t let the righteous people in your circles stand alone.

וְעַל פְּלֵיטַת סופְרֵיהֶם – the remnant

This phrase can mean the weak scholars we have, who are pale shadows of the scholars of long ago. It can also be a reference to weak students who need extra assistance. It can also reference the people who rescue the remnant, people who work in outreach and conversion, and generally help people with their challenges and problems. More loosely, it can be refernece to the people who teach children and write books.

There is prestige in leading a yeshiva but little in teaching children how to read and translate; these roles are demanding and unglamorous, yet vital to our continuity.

וְעַל גֵּרֵי הַצֶּדֶק – the righteous converts

Righteous converts are people who are not born Jewish and choose to walk a new path and lifestyle and embrace Judaism.

People who are Jewish by choice, who choose Judaism over the culture of their birth, can be difficult for people born Jewish, for the simple reason that it makes them look bad. Keeping Shabbos is hard, keeping kosher is annoying, and Jewish education is so expensive; sure, that’s all true. But when you see someone who has worked harder and sacrificed so much more than anyone born Jewish, it makes any complaints or shortcomings look a little privileged. What excuse holds water next to someone who’s freely chosen, often at significant personal cost, the thing you’re complaining about?

Included in a convert or proselyte category is anyone missing a conventional support structure – someone in need, an immigrant, an orphan, older people, and the like. Taking care of these individuals is an obligation under the mitzvah to care for and love the stranger. This blessing is a prayer for these people to get the support they need; we must do our part, too.

וְעָלֵינוּ – and us too

How many people give a moment’s thought to the kinds of people in this prayer? And yet, our communities would collapse if not for them,  and that’s precisely why. They are the people who contribute to the community, not the kind of people you might think you are responsible for. These people deserve our prayers.

This prayer is essentially a request for good things for great people, an extra measure of mercy and good for those you might not have thought of.

And after that list, we squeeze ourselves in, too – וְעָלֵינוּ.

Me too, just a regular person trying to do my part. Be impressed with me, too!

יֶהֱמוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ – overwhelm us with compassion and mercy

There is an orientation of compassion, a way of looking at the world and assuming the best. The Ramban suggests that whether you meet richer or poorer people, you should believe that they are worthy of your respect and have some qualities that you should look up to them for.

Taking a compassionate view of all these people, things can be so hard for them; we ask God to guard them against extra friction or judgment, from high stakes disgrace and mistakes – chillul Hashem. For all they contribute to the Jewish People, this is a small contribution back to them.

וְתֵן שכָר טוב –  give a good payback

As this blessing concludes, we ask God to grant a good reward to all the great people out there. But why ask for that? Is that not how the system works?

There are many different kinds of rewards, and they exist on a spectrum. This world, the World to Come, and the hereafter, short term and long term, and then a range of consequences.

Sometimes bad people get ahead and things go well for them, one form of reward – בִּפְרֹחַ רְשָׁעִים  כְּמוֹ־עֵשֶׂב וַיָּצִיצוּ כּל־פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן לְהִשָּׁמְדָם עֲדֵי־עַד. It is conceivable that a reward can be one good thing, just for a period of time, or just in this lifetime.

Our sages tell of the aftermath of the Golden Calf and suggest that Moshe argued that God was responsible for the consequences of giving the Jewish People so much gold on their departure from Egypt. Our sages compare it to a father who showers and freshens up his son, dresses him and gives him a good meal, then gives him a wad of cash and brings him to the entrance of a brothel; the father has set his son up for catastrophe.

Imagine a kind, sensitive person who works invisibly for years and suddenly becomes fabulously wealthy. Everywhere he goes, people chase him. They knock at his door day and night, call his house and office, wait for him in shul, and mob him at every event. It’s not hard to imagine, and it’s also not hard to imagine this kind and sensitive person becoming irritated and rude. In this example, wealth wasn’t a good reward; it spoiled and ruined the person.

Our sages teach that good deeds beget more good deeds and vice versa. We need the great people out there to have the resources, time, and energy to continue doing the good things they do, so we ask for a good and lasting reward, one that is tolerable and sustainable – וְתֵן שכָר טוב.

לְכָל הַבּוטְחִים בְּשִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת – to all who believe truly

The better you know someone, the more you understand whether you can trust them. Every time they keep their word, you trust them a little more; each time the check doesn’t bounce, you trust the next one. The kind of people who feel like they trust God are people who have spent time trying to understand God and trying to live with a genuine feeling of relationship with God – הַבּוטְחִים בְּשִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת.

People who live with that kind of trust get a good and lasting reward, but the good reward looks different to everyone. To some people, it’s wealth; to others, it’s wisdom or the World to Come. This should be kept private, but to some people, it can be a painful challenge that builds you up.

Imagine a scenario where someone has finished their work and asks the boss for more work, for the best case or deal to work on, the toughest sales pitch. It’s hard work, but the right challenge can stretch and push a person to greatness.

For the people who live with genuine trust in God, this can be a request for the things that help build them further.

וְשים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם לְעולָם –

In a powerful affirmation of our spirituality, we ask for our place to be among the exceptional people.

The impact of leadership,  the refinement of saints, the wisdom of scholars, the determination of educators, and the bravery and conviction of converts.

Let me be like them.

לֹא נֵבוֹשׁ כִּי בְךָ בָטָחְנוּ

God is not a bank that can fold or a president who will leave office.

We will never be embarrassed.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה מִשְׁעָן וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים

This blessing closes by affirming that we can lean on and rely on God.

Leaning and relying are different; when you lean on something not there, you fall. In this prayer, we pray to lean on God and feel like something is there in the moments we need that – מִשְׁעָן.

Relying on God is something everyone talks about but is exceptionally difficult to practice and the realm of the greats – וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים. As a baby learn that mother doesn’t need to be in the room every second, we recognize a healthy development milestone; trust is greater than leaning, and is a spiritual milestone. In the moments that don’t feel like there’s much to lean on, we can only trust that things will work out – וּמִבְטָח.