The Talmudic discussion about connecting the concept of redemption with TEFILA (SHMONE ESREH) is a bit confusing. In the mornings we recite the blessing GA’AL YISRAEL (Who redeemed Yisrael) and then we immediately daven the SHMONE ESREH. However, at night the process goes a bit differently. The Gemara (Brachot 4b) is clear that we should connect the two concepts, but we’ve got this blessing called HASHKIVEINU intervening between GA’AL YISRAEL and SHMONEH ESREH. How is that right?
Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi to the rescue! He sets off the discussion which culminates in this conclusion: This HASHKIVEINU blessing is really an extended recitation of GE’ULAH (GE’ULAH ARICHTA), redemption. How does this work?
The Beit Yosef (Rav Yosef Karo) explains that the Jews in Egypt were still afraid between the midnight appearance of the Tenth Plague, killing of the Egyptian firstborn, and the dawn departure from bondage and Egypt. In other words, fear can interrupt our sense of GE’ULAH. What are we afraid of? Oh, so many things: the dark, the Egyptians, going to sleep, things that go bump in the night (Me’iri: MAZIKIM). Let’s take a look at the prayer itself to be edified.
We begin: Help us lie down O Eternal our God in peace, and rise up O our King to life. Clearly, the first concern is waking up alive tomorrow morning. Most deaths happen during sleep. There are rabbis who describe sleep as one sixtieth of death. Add to that the historic fact that night time was scary before Edison invented light pollution, and we don’t feel very secure at night. We have trouble thinking thoughts of security, safety, GE’ULA at night. This prayer helps.
The Vilna Gaon believed that the lying down to sleep was preparation for the soul to ascend to heaven. He believed that God built into us the need for sleep so that our souls could ascend to Heaven and study every night. During this study session all secrets are revealed, and this, I believe, helps explain why so often after a good night’s sleep we are able to solve the difficulties which so eluded us the day before.
The next phrase is just so beautiful: Spread over us Your canopy of peace. Especially now that I daven Mincha and Ma’ariv outside, it’s awesome to see the darkness spread from west to east as we’re conversing with God about the world and our place in it. When we start Mincha bright rays of sunlight are reflecting off buildings in Jordan, so that we can see the sunset mirrored in the windows of Amman. Then, slowly the lights go on over the Hills of Moav as we begin Ma’ariv. It doesn’t seem like the light departed; it feels like the darkness spread its cover over us.
Now comes, perhaps the most important idea in this paragraph. Probably, its reason to exist: Protect us! Remove from us the most worrying calamities which can strike a society: enemies, pandemics, wars, and famine. Then we add an unlikely member to this list of societal woe: YAGON (perhaps ‘sorrow’, but I would go with ‘depression’). We implore God to help us with our state of mind, like when we daily recite: He heals the broken heart; He binds up the shattered nerves (Psalms 147:3).
The next phrase, to me, is a bit controversial: Remove the SATAN from before us and behind us. There are those who believe in a real life devil or monster, but I go with: Who is the adversary (SATAN)? My negative inclinations (YETZER HARA, Baba Batra 16a)! ‘Please, hide us in the shadow of Your wings.’
Why should God do all these nice things for our jittery nerves? Because, ‘You, God are our guardian (God plays for Cleveland?) and deliverer; You are a God, King Who is gracious and empathetic (RACHUM, many go with ‘compassionate’). In other words, why should God do all these wonderful and helpful things for us? Because, that’s Who You are!!
We return to the true theme of the blessing again before the closing blessing: Guard our going out and our coming in, for life, for peace, from now and forever. Then comes the closing thought: You are the Guard for His nation Yisrael forever!
This prayer which initially causes such consternation, transforms into a marvelous paean to God’s protective shield over the Jewish people. But it’s more. It calms nerves in tremulous times. Rav Soloveitchik explained:
With daylight we celebrate God’s kindness and love with confidence in His promised redemption (geula) but at night we must muster up our faith to sustain us against the surrounding darkness. We pause. In the morning, with confidence of our past geula we move directly to the Shemone Esrei. We barrel forward, confident in life and redemption…But at night… our confidence wanes. Our faith in the bridge connecting “…the glorious redemption of time past and the promise of a future one…” weakens. Chazal were all too aware of our uncertainty. At night, we confront the unknown, the unseen and unseeable. There is no flashlight, no flood light that can illuminate that dark place. Only faith in God. And so, we say, “Lay us down in peace, Lord our God, and raise us up, our King, to life…” Only God is our shelter; only God our guide. “Spread over us the canopy of Your peace – sukat she’lomecha.” There is nothing lofty in our request. Ours is the cry of a child to a parent, seeking comfort as the night comes on. Please don’t go away! Please don’t leave me!
So often we rattle off these words in our attempt to both daven and keep up with the minyan, but it’s worthwhile to focus (at least a little) on the beauty of this plea, which readies us to stand in awe and confidence before our Maker in prayer.