Today I would like to talk about the b’rakhot (blessings) surrounding the Sh’ma and the unique role they play in our liturgy. Not all b’rakhotwere created equal. Even if their form is strictly regulated with shem (God’s name), malkhut (God’s kingship); with long, short, and juxtaposed forms each requiring their own particular formulae; what we mean by “barukh atah” – “praised are you” – varies considerably.
First, let’s consider the Amida. The task of the worshipper is to remember with Avot (Ancestors), to acknowledge with G’vurot (God’s might) and K’dushah (Holiness), to ask with weekday bakashot (petitions), to reflect with the meta-b’rakha, R’tzei (Worship), to thank with Modim (Thanksgiving) and to hope with birkat shalom (peace). In describing the Amida we use a lot of verbs dear to therapists… and teachers resolving classroom disputes – verbs that describe feelings and relationships. This is how we generally think about prayer – and perhaps the wrong angle to take with Sh’ma uvirkhoteha.
The liturgical unit of the Sh’ma and its surrounding b’rakhot is exceptional. These b’rachot are attached to Sh’ma in the first chapter of the Mishnah, and yet none of them is directly about the mitzvah of saying the Sh’ma. Nowhere do we say, “Barukh atah…asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al kriat sh’ma.” When we light candles, the b’rakha reflects that. Kiddush makes reference to grapes, even if it sometimes continues on about the holiness of the day. This is not the case with Sh’ma. So let’s take a different approach when analyzing these b’rakhot – let’s draw our inspiration from the Sh’ma itself: a doxology, or better, a creed – a statement of what we believe.
So if we look at the three (or four) b’rakhot surrounding Sh’ma in this light, what do they say about our beliefs, and perhaps more difficult to answer – how do they form a cohesive whole? We begin with creation: Yotzeir in the morning or Ma’ariv Aravim in the evening. In contrast to the beginning of the Amida, where we remember the past, in this b’rakha of creation we think about the present, talking about the constant renewal of the physical world around us. Abudirham (in the 14th century) observes a linguistic oddity that illustrates the point well – that we speak of aravim (evenings) in the plural. He continues by quoting ibn Ezra, who explains that there are two evenings – the sun passing below the horizon, and then the disappearance of light reflected from the clouds. Of course, only when this second evening falls does starlight emerge from a sky that previously hid it – an “or hadash,” a new light of the evening.
The Zohar tells a story – well – the Talmud tells it first in masekhet Sanhedrin, but the Zohar tells it better – that shows us how the first b’rakha of creation is connected to our second b’rakha – revelation:
אמר קב”ה לעלמא בשעתא דעבד ליה וברא לאדם. א”ל עלמא עלמא. אנת ונימוסך לא קיימין אלא על אורייתא. ובגין כך בראתי ליה לאדם בך בגין דיתעסק בה. ואי לאו הא אנא אהדר לך לתהו ובהו.
Said the Holy One, Blessed be God, to the world in the time of making it and creating humanity: God said to it, “World, World! You and your natural laws are based on nothing but Torah. Thus I created humanity in you, so that humanity could spend time on Torah. And if they do not, then I will return you to tohu vavohu – “formless and void.”
It’s noteworthy that the word for “natural law” here is נימוס, derived from the Greek νομος, from which we get words like “astronomy.” We see that our tradition links creation and revelation – a world without Torah is a world not worth sustaining. There are countless examples in our tradition of this interdependence. Creation grants us the foundation – the physical world – which sustains us, enabling us to study and to learn, through which creation itself may continue. In a world governed by entropy – the natural tendency toward chaos, disorder, tohu and vohu – it takes constant self-improvement, a daily effort towards better knowledge of the universe, to maintain order.
This makes redemption – the last b’rakha in our trio – all the more important. With redemption we are pushed to the next level. The world is sustained by Torah, but we are a people who demand more than to be sustained. After all, it wouldn’t have been enough to be sustained in perpetuity as slaves in Egypt. We are a people who start with Torah, and then continue with Prophets, and then the Mishnah and the Codes, all the way to the Blogs. And we’re still not convinced we’ve gotten it right – we’re still going. Growth and evolution is hardwired into our way of life. So herein lies the importance of redemption. To sustain and to improve takes something extra – a spark of initiative, of genius – a miracle.
When we daven (pray) the Amida, we pray with our hearts, but we say the Sh’ma with our heads. Come and hear! Learn! Observe! We begin with the Sh’ma so that the prayers we feel and hope and dream later in the Amida are not hevel – emptiness – but rather, they can spring out from the foundation we build by understanding the truths of the world.