David Walk

Permission to Pray

Our Shmoneh Esreh prayer, or the AMIDA, is a marvel of liturgical engineering. The Men of the Great Assembly (established c. 516 BCE), under the guidance of Ezra HaSofer, designed a remarkable service, which can be easily adjusted to fit any day of our ritual calendar. This Silent Devotion is full of requests and petitions on regular weekdays, but its list of pleas can be removed from its center and replaced with a description of the special nature of the occasion on Shabbat and Chag. Over the next weeks, we will explore the intricacies of this amazing prayer, and, hopefully, this endeavor will contribute to a more meaningful davening experience. I know that I can use a supplication overhaul. 

This endeavor at communication with God is called Shmoneh Esreh because there were originally 18 blessings in this prayer. The first three and last three remain pretty stable all the time, and this present article will deal with the opening blessing. This first paragraph is called AVOT (Patriarchs), because it focuses on the reality that our relationship with our Maker is based upon God’s love affair with our Founding Fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Our Sages credit them with inventing the concept of regular prayer, every morning (Avraham), afternoon (Yitzchak) and night (Ya’akov). 

Invariably, our litany of blessings follows the set format, ‘Blessed are You, O Lord, King of the universe.’ But not here at the outset of our Amida. Here, instead, we begin, ‘Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, and the God of our ancestors.’ Why? Rav Soloveitchik responds:

The words ‘King of the universe’ are omitted here, for how can temporal, flesh and blood humans purport to approach the eternal and infinite King of the Universe for fulfillment of one’s personal needs? Invoking the Universal King in the beginning of our Amida would negate our very ability to approach God in prayer. Instead, we invoke ‘God of our forefathers’. If we are able to engage in prayer at all, it is only through the precedent of our forefathers who instituted the very institution of prayer. 

So, our first blessing is a preamble to the Amida in which we state: We’re here because our ALTE ZEIDIE paved the way. This introductory blessing continues by specifying that our God was the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Why is it necessary to list them individually and to attach the word God to each? Because each of them related to God differently, one through CHESED (kindness), one through GEVURA (spiritual stamina), and one through TEFERET (splendor, perhaps a synthesis of the first two approaches, but maybe through Torah study in his tent). We, too, are all different in our personalities and, as a result, connect to God from different perspectives and needs. Our master prayer must be flexible and versatile to meet the needs of all.

Now we begin to describe our perspective on how we view God and how we relate to our Creator. Not surprisingly, these descriptions appear in sets of three, corresponding to the AVOT. We start with by describing God as 1. GADOL (great), 2. GIBOR (mighty), 3. NORAH (awesome). Then we move on to categorize God 1. is the most-high God (E-L ELYON), 2. bestows acts of loving kindness (GOMEL CHASADIM), and 3. creates and, therefore, owns everything (KONEH HAKOL). Next, we relate God’s actions on our behalf; 1. God remembers the kindness of the AVOT, 2. brings a redeemer to their descendants, and 3. this is all accomplished through the Divine name in love. Finally, we declare that God is the King who will 1. help, 2. save, and 3. shield us.

It’s important to point out that we love three-part concepts. At the beginning of Pirkei Avot, these same authors of the Amida, the Men of the Great Assembly, teach us three ideas: 1. Be careful (cautious, patient) in the administration of justice, 2. raise many disciples and 3. make a fence round the Torah. Then Shimon HaZadik, one of the last members of this august council informs us that this world stands on three pillars, 1. Torah, 2, Divine worship (AVODA), and 3. acts of loving kindness (GEMILAT CHESED). 

Please, be aware that this love of triple ideas is a bedrock of this world of ours. Our earthly realm is three dimensional and can only find stability in groups of three, as in a three-legged stool. Therefore prayers, hopes and wishes for this earth will often be expressed in triplets. This is in stark contrast to God and the Celestial Realm where there is perfect unity. Never forget: God is absolutely ONE! 

We end this first blessing of the Amida with a bit of a surprise: Blessed are You, O Lord, Who is the Shield of Avraham. Really! After all that effort to keep our observations about God in threes, out of respect for the three Avot, we end by just mentioning Avraham, and God’s promise to him when he felt vulnerable: Fear not, Avram, I am your shield, your reward is truly immense (Breishit 15:1). 

Our religion is the result of contributions of all three Avot, but our right to address God will always stem from the SACHAR (reward, merit, wages) of Avraham. He not only started our people; he began the Divine bank account which we will always draw upon. He will always be our permission to pray. The ticket into God’s Presence is the membership card in Avraham’s family, either by birth or by choice. 

There is a curious HALACHA, law and custom, about this blessing. Even though one should have KAVANA (intention and sense of purpose) for the entire enterprise of davening, it’s only this BRACHA which absolutely requires it. Without KAVANA for this blessing, one has not fulfilled the traditional requirement of prayer. Why? Because this blessing describes, not only how Jewish worship developed from the efforts of the Avot. These ancestors, and primarily Avraham, began the eternal relationship with the Eternal One. Without acknowledging that reality, we have no right to think that we have offered a Jewish prayer.   

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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