Divine Service

The last three blessings of Shmoneh Esrei, just like the first three, are recited every day of the year. They are called HODAYA, thanksgiving, but that’s a bit of a misnomer, because this, the anti-penultimate blessing doesn’t say ‘thanks’. It contains a request. It’s a very critical request to the understanding of what it means to pray. We’re asking God to accept this prayer as AVODA, Divine service. We begin this plea with the simple word ‘RETZE’.

Let’s begin our analysis by trying to translate that term. RETZE is the imperative form of the root RESH, TZADI, HEY, usually rendered ‘want’. ANI ROTZE, I want. But what does this term mean when you address another and say, ‘RETZE’? Are we telling them to want something or what to want? What does it mean when we address God and plead, ‘RETZE…B’AM’CHA YISRAEL U’V’TEFILATAM? Want Your nation Israel, and their prayer. Some suggest ‘be favorable to’ or ‘find favor with’. Those variations on the verb ‘favor’ are the most commonly found translations, but I like ‘be pleased’ or ‘be delighted’. Maybe we’re asking God to ‘desire’ us and our prayers.

This formula, RETZE B’AMCHA, seemingly comes from KI ROTZE HASHEM B’AMO (Tehillim 149:4), which we recite in the P’SUKEI D’ZIMRA portion of SHACHARIT. This phrase can mean ‘For the Lord looks with favor (‘finds delight’, ‘is pleased’) upon His people’. In the Midrash this phrase is understood to refer to the KORBANOT, temple offerings. Originally, this phrase was a specific request that our KORBANOT be accepted lovingly, but now we have added U’B’TEFILATAM, ‘and to their prayers’, which have temporarily replaced the Temple service.

We greatly desire that God accept our efforts at Divine worship. We are recognizing that it is an incredible display of favor towards us for God to accept our offerings and, nowadays, our prayers.

So, we are not asking, at this point like in SHMA KOLEINU, that our requests be granted. We want our prayers to reach the Heavenly Heights. Then we, immediately ask: And restore our service to the Your most holy House, the Beit HaMikdash.

Now, comes a fascinating debate about how to punctuate the next two phrases. Do they read: And accept in love and favor the fire offerings of Yisrael and their prayer. Are they combining the now suspended Temple service with our present prayer system? Or do we connect the ‘fire offerings’ to the request for the return to ‘Your most holy House’, and place a period before mentioning our modern prayer service? Rav Soloveitchik made it a practice to place a pregnant pause before mentioning acceptance of prayer.

The Rav went on to explain:

When a Jew says RETZE, he does not refer to the satisfaction of needs and the fulfillment of desires about which he poured out his heart in the middle, petitionary section…When he reaches RETZE these ‘petty’ matters no longer concern him. His soul is bound up in a great, profound, world embracing request. He asks God to accept the great sacrifice, he has just offered, to accept his being that is returned to God, cleaving unto the Infinite and connecting itself to the Divine Throne. God is ‘satisfied’ with the offering. He accepts it and restores it to the one who has offered it…From his prayer, man emerges firm, elevated, and sublime, having found his redemption in self-loss and self-recovery (Worship of the Heart, p. 179).

Toward the end of the BERACHA we state: V’TECHEZENU EINEINU B’SHUVECHA L’TZIYON B’RACHAMIM, ‘and may our eyes witness Your return to Tziyon in compassion’. This expression seems to be based upon a verse in Yeshayahu: When your eyes behold the king in his beauty (33:17). The King is really God, and we can’t wait to see the glory of God back in Yerushalayim. Historically, the apparition of the flesh and blood king was the greatest experience of a lifetime. Well, we want to experience that joy with God, again enshrined in the Beit HaMikdash.

In these words, we’re recognizing a painful reality. Our request for an end to the GALUT isn’t just about our nation getting back to a rebuilt Yerushalayim. It’s also about God coming home, too. K’VIYACHOL, it’s almost like saying that that the Divine Presence, SHECHINA, is in GALUT, too.

This observation reflects the verse in Zecharyah, ‘I shall return to Yerushalayim in compassion; My House I shall rebuild within it (1:16), which concludes with an amazing pun. The verse states: and a plumb line will be stretched out in Yerushalayim. But the word for this building tool is KAVEH, which also means ‘hope‘. As the Malbim explains, God’s triumphant return to Tziyon will be the extension of the TIKVAH, which has sustained us all these millennia, in spite of all the travail and trouble. Ourf hope is our lifeline.

This BERACHA is also the place in which we add the special prayer for those days upon which extra KORBANOT are offered, the MUSAFIM, additional offerings. This prayer, called YA’ALEH V’YAVO, reflects the anomaly that we have special occasions without the prohibition labor, and therefore, a weekday Shmoneh Esrei is recited. This insertion will be discussed in a separate article.

We conclude this BERACHA with the words: Who returns the Divine Presence (SHECHINA) to Tziyon. This announcement seems to reflect the sentiment of this verse, ‘Thus said the Lord: I have returned to Tziyon, and I will dwell (V’SHACHANTI) within Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim will be called the City of Truth, and the Mountain of the Lord of Hosts will be called the Holy Mount’ (Zecharyah 8:4). The Malbim explains that the Truth is the Torah and the holiness will reflect the renewal of the Temple offerings, which is, of course, the topic of our BERACHA.

This opening to the final section of Shmoneh Esreh moves from BAKASHOT (requests) to the realm of the sanctified and sublime. I like to think that this BERACHA reflects a confluence of interests, those of the nation and those of God. It depicts a future rendezvous on the Temple Mount.

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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