David Walk

Beyond This Realm-Blessings of Shma

As we continue our survey of Birchot Kriat Shma, we come to a conundrum. Whether on Shabbat or on weekdays, we begin our first blessing with praise for God with great acclaim for the wonders of nature. We appreciate the rising sun and continue: How manifest are Your works, O Lord…the universe is full of Your creations (Tehillim 104:24). Our universe is just marvelous. These praises are going along swimmingly until we seem to totally change the subject: May your Name be praised forever, our King, Creator of the MESHARATIM (ministering angels). We swiftly shift from appreciation of our wonderful world to the glory of heaven. Good Heavens, what happened?

Many authorities and historians assume that this new material about the celestial sphere, which contains the first declaration of the KEDUSHA (doxology or declaration of God’s holiness) of the three which appear in our morning services, was added on to the original shorter blessing. Prof Ismar Elbogen is sure that this section was inserted in the early Geonic period by Merkava Mystics. These Kabbalists were totally intrigued by the visions of the prophets Yeshayahu and Yechezkel. Who am I to disagree with these respected scholars? So, I’ll let Rav Soloveitchik do it:

Historians failed to find consistency in this change of motifs and concluded that the mystical motif is a later addendum, which goes back to the fifth century. The original text of the first blessing, according to this view, consisted exclusively of the first theme, dealing with the cosmic events of sunrise and sunset…In view of our analysis, the whole structure of BIRKAT YOTZER OHR appears in a different light…The prayer connects the cosmic order with an ethical category…In short, the first motif is committed to the unity of the Divine will as a cosmic potency and ethical potency…Yet, the Divine will itself appears in both, in the cosmic drama, inscrutable, remote and hidden…and in the transcendental world…That is why the second section is devoted to angels who personify the pure Will…Both the stars…and the angels…are agents of the absolute ethico-cosmic will (Worship of the Heart, p.130-132).

Our prayer now gets very dramatic by recreating the daily heavenly scene in which: All of them (the angels) open their mouths in holiness and purity, in song and music, they bless, praise, extol, sanctify and coronate–The Name of God, the great King…

At this juncture, we attempt to recreate the heavenly scene first witnessed by Yeshayahu. He glimpsed the angels giving each other permission to proclaim: KADOSH, KADOSH, KADOSH the Lord of Hosts, Who fills the entire world with His glory (Yeshayahu 6:3). Then we move to the scene witnessed by Yechezkel: Blessed is the glory of God from His place (Yechezkel 3:12).

What’s the difference between the scene witnessed by Yeshayahu and that of Yechezkel? Yeshayahu lived in Yerushalayim while the Beit Hamikdash adorned the Temple Mount. On the other hand, Yechezkel was on the banks of the River K’var in the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the Holy Temple. 

Yeshayahu had a much clearer and closer view of the daily ceremony inside God’s holy abode. He witnessed through prophetic vision the angels declaring that God is thrice holy. Holy means transcendent, beyond all physical reality. Nevertheless, God’s glory permeates the entire physical universe. What is the significance of the triple holiness? It could mean that there are three categories of holiness, perhaps time, space and humans. But when we repeat this declaration for the third time each morning, in the UVA L’TZIYON prayer, we also recite the explanatory translation of Yonatan ben Uziel:

Holy in the highest and exalted heavens is the house of His Shekinah, holy upon the earth is the work of His might, holy forever, world without end, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of the brightness of His glory.

This powerful statement contains a bit of a paradox. How can God be triple KADOSH, holy or transcendent, while simultaneously filling the whole world with Divine Presence? Which is it? Is God immanent (nearby) or remote (ineffably distant)? I’d like to go with yes and yes.

This mystery was central to the last Torah readings of Sefer Shmot. How could the Jews house God? How could the nation fulfill the command: Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst (Shemot 25:8)? Put another way, we can ask: How is it possible to build a structure to house God Who is described as, ‘Your God is an all consuming fire’ (Devarim 4:24), especially when the main building materials are wood and cloth?

So, again Rav Soloveitchik comes to our rescue by pointing out:

We cannot help but notice the the intent of the Torah to ‘arrest’ divinity within concrete bounds.The Sinaitic revelation demonstrated the unapproachability of God…(However,) immediately thereafter, God God commands Moses (about the Mishkan)…There is a definite tendency to imprison the infinite, transcendental Deity within the bounds of our concrete universe. The source of this concept is Yechezkel’s famous epiphany: Baruch Kavod Hashem Mi-Mekomo (3:12)-God has a MAKOM, a place. God imposes voluntary imprisonment upon Himself, by His own free will arrests Himself within the confines of a cosmic order in general and within the hallowed abode in particular (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 50-51).

This double declaration which we have incorporated into this blessing for Shma initially helps us in our effort to declare the greatness of God who created and rules this world. However, beyond this we also must learn to live our own lives in the space between freedom and confinement. We live our lives in the space between growth and expansion on the one hand and stationary moorings on the other. God’s miraculous example of infinite size shrunk into physical confines through the process called TZIMTZUM (contraction), teaches us to reach spiritual heights while still living within our physical realm.

The blessing of YOTZER OHR goes beyond the glorious praises of God to also teach amazing philosophic and mystical ideas which not only prepare us to recite SHMA, but also prepare us to live in the amazing world which God has bestowed upon us. In our next piece, we will finish the first blessing of KRIAT SHMA.    

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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