Last week, we started a journey together to improve our prayers. I’ve always felt that the time we spend learning about tefillah is one of the best allocations for our learning time. First of all, it is knowledge that we will use every day. Secondly, we don’t have to worry about our retention of the knowledge since we will be reviewing what we’ve gained on a daily basis. So let’s get down to business.
We were studying the first blessing of the Shemone Esreh. Within this bracha it says, Gomel chasodim tovim v’koneih hakol, that Hashem bestows good kindness and owns everything (or creates everything, cf. Artscroll siddur). The obvious question is, What’s a chesed tov, a good kindness? Is there such a thing as bad kindness? One answer is that if someone breaks a leg, G-d forbid, and it gets healed, that’s a chesed, but it’s not wholly good, or tov. It would have been better not to break the leg. A good kindness would be that someone gets a promotion in his job or receives a gift from a friend. These are a kindness that have no bad preface, as does the breaking and then healing of a leg.
There is however a second strong question on this stanza and that is, what is the connection between bestowing good kindness and that Hashem owns everything? Indeed, in the Nusach Ari, the text is koneih hakol without the connecting vav, indicating that it is a separate thought on its own. I would like to suggest that a chesed tov, a good kindness, is one that is done purely altruistically, without any ulterior motive. This is the way Hashem operates, since there can’t be any ulterior motive as he already owns everything.
Later on in the blessing, we say meivi go’eil, that Hashem brings redemption, l’ma’an Shemo, for the sake of His Name. We are taught that during our exile the Name of Hashem appears to us as incomplete, Ka”h, a yud and a hei, while with the redemption it will be complete, yud-hei-vav-hei. Thus, we say Hashem will bring the geula for the completion of His Name. The Olas Tamid (a must sefer on tefillah) notes that meivi go’eil is in the present tense and therefore it is also gives thanks to Hashem for all of the redemptions that we experience from our daily problems and troubles.
We then say, Melech, Ozeir, u’Moshia, u’Mogein, that Hashem is the King who helps, and saves, and shields. The Otzeir HaTefillos explains that this refers to three levels: the wicked, the intermediate, and the righteous. He assists the wicked, he saves the intermediate and he shields the tzaddik from any problem. The Vilna Gaon, zt”l, zy”a, explains that ozeir, help, refers to the positive commandments that assists us in spirituality and in attaining holiness. Moshia, to save, refers to the negative commandments that save us from impurity and deterioration. U’Mogein, and He shields us, refers to Torah study about which the Gemara teaches us that the Torah is meigen u’matzlei u’kesris bifnei haperonios, that the Torah shields and saves like a shield before retribution.
The blessing then ends off, Blessed are you Hashem, “Mogein Avraham – The shield of Avraham.” Since correct concentration in this blessing is absolutely imperative, I’ve trained myself to think two thoughts during this conclusion. First, that Hashem shielded Avraham when he was thrown into the kivshan ha’eish, the furnace of fire, of Nimrod. This was a stupendous miracle since even the guards around the furnace on the outside were burned to a crisp. Secondly, Hashem shielded Avraham during his battle with the four mighty kings and their powerful armies when he went to go rescue Lot with very little help.
When I have time, I have in mind another powerful thought: That Hashem has been shielding us from our very beginnings, namely from our first ancestor Avraham throughout the millennia for since we are here, it means that he spared our ancestors from holocausts, pogroms, crusades and inquisitions until this very day. As I am a son of a holocaust survivor, and a descendant of those who escaped Spain, this thought is very real to me.
In the merit of improving our tefillah, may Hashem answer our prayers and grant us long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
Transcribed and edited by Shelley Zeitlin.