This shiur is dedicated by Drs. Jerry and Barbara Belsh.
Bless for us, HaShem our God, the coming year,
And all kinds of its produce for good.
And grant a blessing to the face of the earth,
and satisfy us with Your goodness,
and bless our year like the good years.
Blessed are You, who blesses the years.
I. The blessing of the years
Unlike the berakhot that we have examined previously, this one does not seem to have a clear biblical source. The only relevant verse appears to be, "I will restore ("shilamti) to you the years" (Joel 2,25).
This helps us identify one problem with this berakha. Normally, I could scarcely claim a single word in a verse as a source for the language of a berakha. In this case though, that word - "years" - is striking for the simple reason that we would not normally have chosen a unit of time as the object of the blessing of this prayer. We are asking here for prosperity, for food, and the obvious object could have been the earth (if we are thinking primarily in an agricultural framework), or ourselves. This berakha, though, like the verse, chose to associate the berakha with "our year," with time, rather than with a material object. This is reflected by the standard rabbinic name for this berakha - birkat ha-shanim, the blessing of the years. This clearly demands explanation.
A second difficulty centers on the verb of this berakha. One action is repeated three times - blessing. There is nothing inappropriate about this, until we realize that ALL blessings are about blessing. We could just as easily have asked God to bless us with knowledge, with forgiveness, and with health. For some reason, this berakha is about blessing per se, in a specially unique manner. This is all the more striking since there is, in fact, no clear indication just what sort of blessing we are asking for. Were it not for the reference to "the earth" in the third line, the berakha would sound like a general request for anything good. Since it is clear that it is material prosperity that is the object of this request, we have to ask ourselves why this sort of good is described simply and generically as "blessing." These two questions come together when we examine the "chatima" - the God to whom we address this request is He who "blesses the years."
The immediate answer to the question why the object of blessing is the unit of time of one year is that the berakha is referring primarily to agricultural prosperity. Agriculture moves in a yearly cycle - one has either a good year or a bad one. This, however, merely moves the question up one degree - why did the Sages choose to particularize the request to agriculture, which, despite its clear centrality for the welfare of man, is not the only sphere in which we are likely to request material success?
II. God's presence
Since we find a source for the "years" of our berakha in Joel 2, let us examine that chapter. The chapter describes a terrible plague of locust, described as a great army of destruction, and calls upon the people to gather together in repentance and prayer.
The priests, the ministers of God, shall cry between the hall and the altar, and they shall say: HaShem, spare Your people, and let not your heritage be given to shame by letting the nations rule over them; Why should it be said amidst the nations, where is their God?
And HaShem was zealous for His land, and He pitied His people.
And God responded and said to His people: Behold I shall send you grain, wine and oil, and you shall be satisfied with it; but I shall not permit you to be again a shame amidst the nations....
Fear not, O earth! Be glad and rejoice, for God will do great things....
And I shall restore to you the years eaten by the locust... my great army which I sent against you. (Joel 2, 17-25).
It is clear from these verses that the agricultural failure of the Land of Israel constitutes a desecration of the name of God. The immediate result is that the nations will exclaim: "Where is their God!" The final result of the blessing described in the verses will be that:
You shall know that I am present in the midst of Israel, and that I am HaShem your God and there is no other; And My people shall never be ashamed.
The fruits of the land, the success of the crops, is the clear sign of God's presence within Israel.
To understand this better, we must remember that berakha, blessing, means the power of growth and reproduction. The first berakha in the Torah was "pru u-revu," be fruitful and multiply. God gave this AFTER creation. Everything created is created according to a plan, bound by its limits. Every created object is equal to itself and can contain no more than what was accorded it by creation. God blessed the animal world with the blessing of pru u-revu, meaning he gave it the power to create more, to be more than the given, more than what is there from the start. The power of God himself, expressed in creation ex nihilo, is carried over and granted to created things, to continue the true living growth and development.
Within the natural world, the place where we see this power of growth and reproduction is first and foremost in the land, which for us represents the bedrock of growth. Land, earth, and soil are metaphors for the source of growth. When we ask for prosperity and sustenance, we are not merely asking for the objects we need to live. We are not asking for God to give us food, or money, or other objects that He can create and hand us. We are asking for BLESSING, the blessing of God; that is, the power to produce more, to be productive and creative. This power is the power of God Himself, and if we are blessed with it, it is only because God is present within us. Hence the conclusion of the prophet, that when the land will give forth its produce, "You shall know that I am present in the midst of Israel."
This is also the key to the choice of the YEAR, a unit of time, as the object that receives the blessing. Because the blessing is not the material object itself, but the growth and development of which the objects are the products, the blessing is applied to TIME. Without time there can be no growth. A stationary, non-living thing can exist outside of time, or without relating to time. If I were only asking for a piece of bread, the response would not relate specifically to time, but if I am asking for the presence of God within to be expressed in growth and development, then I am asking for the blessing OF time. I am asking to be part of a PROCESS, to become part of that value which can exist only within time - the value of growth. This then is "mevarekh ha-shanim," I appeal to God who blesses the years, for that is the source and the substance of prosperity. God's presence within time is what Man needs and yearns for, and this blessing will express itself in the land.
IV. Your goodness
There are two versions of the fourth line of this berakha: "and satisfy us with YOUR goodness (ve-sab'einu mi-tuvekha)" and "satisfy us with ITS (the land's) goodness (mi-tuva)." The first one is clearly in line with what I have been claiming. Beyond the actual goods we would like to have, we are praying for God's blessing to become part of our lives; in other words, we are praying for the presence of God in our lives. However the second version should also be understood the same way. This will be clear if we pay attention to the request in this line - to be satisfied, "ve-sab'einu."
"Sova" means satiety. We find the connection between "sova" and berakha in the well-known verse which mandates the recitation of grace after meals: "And you shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless HaShem your God for the good land which He has given you" (Deut. 8,10). In our berakha, I suggest we should not understand this line to be indicating the AMOUNT of prosperity we would like - give us enough food until we are satisfied. It would be strange indeed if we would tell God how much food we want. Rather, satiety indicates our subjective feeling about the gift we are receiving. The blessing here is for the feeling of fullness, the feeling that we are productive enough to support ourselves. This is not merely a physical feeling, but the sense of creativity and fullness of a overflowing productive life. It is the sense of a day well-spent, a task fulfilled, which grants a person a feeling of satisfaction. Hence, "let us be satisfied with the good of the land" is a prayer for a spiritual connection to the physical goodness of this world, which is itself based on the spiritual nature of blessing, productivity, and creativity.
Having said that, I myself prefer the version "satisfy us with Your goodness," which is the one I recite. The goodness of God here is not the things He makes and sends us, but the fullness of His presence and the attendant blessing in our endeavors.
V. Eretz Yisrael
The berakha does not explicitly mention the Land of Israel. Although the focus is on land, it does not say precisely which land. Without a doubt, the request is for prosperity in all forms, and all lands as well. Nevertheless, I think that there is here a hint in the direction of THE Land - the land of Israel, as is quite clear in the chapter in the prophet Joel on which the berakha is (loosely) based. (This will be especially significant once we realize, as I will claim in the next berakha, that there is NO explicit berakha about the land of Israel in the Shemoneh Esrei). This should not be surprising - if the berakha is about the blessing of God's presence as manifested in the material world, and especially in the fruitfulness of the land, we know that properly speaking this is the relationship of God to the land which is specifically the place of His Presence, the land of Israel. Of course, this would support the version "satisfy us with ITS goodness."
Since we are half-way through the series, it is time to point out what may have become obvious. In each of the request-berakhot we have discussed, I have claimed that, in one way or another, we are asking for a closer relationship with the presence of God. In all honesty, I did not set out with that goal. In each case, I merely tried to interpret the particular nuances of the language of the berakha. But now, in retrospect, it does appear that I have been (unusually) consistent in "spiritualizing" these practical requests. I think that the point here is quite correct - this is the true meaning of the relationship between tefila, the most spiritual of all mitzvot, and tachanunim (supplication), the earthy, practical requests that form the core of the Shemoneh Esrei. We are engaged in a religious and spiritual connection with God when we pray, not by translating the language of tefila into something else, more "refined" and elevated, but by realizing that the practical necessities of man are themselves the vehicle of the real connection with God in this world. We are not praying for something found not in this world, but by praying we reaffirm that the things of this world are all from God, are part and parcel of our relationship with Him, and only through accepting them from Him can we truly spiritualize our lives. To return to the first introductory shiur, tefila is avoda, service, and service of God is the centering of our needs on Him, for only He can supply us with meaning and life. We truly want health, prosperity, knowledge, etc., while realizing that these things themselves are not merely earthly goods which we cannot do without, but are themselves the manifestations of God's presence. If we obtain them, or think we can obtain them, elsewhere, then they are no more than dust and ashes. If we realize that they are part of our relationship with God, and that they come from within that relationship, then they themselves are the basis for a religious cleaving unto the living God.
This shiur is also available on KESHET, http://traffic.libsyn.com/kmtt/shemoneh_esrei_13_5772_ebick.mp3
Next week, ingathering of the exile.