Finally, in our survey of the Shmone Esre prayer, we get to the heart of the matter: BAKASHOT (requests). This daily dozen (nowadays a Baker’s Dozen) inventory of entreaties laid before God is the heart and core of our weekday Amida. It might seem a bit crass that our most commonly recited prayer to our Maker might look like a laundry list of solicitations, to an untrained eye. So, it behooves us to set the record straight in two ways.
First of all, every request is framed in the first-person plural. Our Sages have trained us to make sure that we have others in mind in our petitions, even before our own needs. The Magen Avraham wrote in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, beginning of 46) that everyone should accept upon themselves the obligation of V’AHAVTA L’REI’ACHA K’MOCHA, you should love your fellow as you love yourself (Vayikra 19:18)’, before the Shacharit service. Personally, I declare this idea this every morning before BARUCH SHE’AMAR, the beginning of P’SUKEI D’ZIMRA. Our petitioning procedure must never become egocentric.
Secondly, I don’t really believe that the authors of Shmone Esre (ANSHE K’NESET HaGADOLA, the Men of the Great Assemble, 5th c. BCE) actually intended for these to be concrete, specific requests. I truly believe that this enterprise is a course in understanding what things are vital to human existence. I think that they were informing us of the basics of a just and successful society. Plus, they taught us that we need God’s blessings and support to achieve these goals.
And now (a little drum roll, please) the first BAKASHA: DA’AT, intelligence. Shlomo HaMelech got it right, if God offers you one wish, ask for wisdom (Melachim I 3:5-9). Foolish me, I would have asked for more wishes. It is the ability to think, learn and make rational and moral decisions which makes us human, and is, of course, the key to all other human needs.
This BERACHA does not follow the standard model of most of these middle blessings. The normal format is: 1. request, 2. SHEVACH, praise to God for being the provider of this particular blessing, 3. the CHATIMA or closing statement. Remember, according to most commentaries BRACHA means ‘increase’, so when we close each paragraph with a BARUCH ATA HASHEM, we are also requesting an increase in whatever issue is being discussed.
Our blessing, on the other hand, begins with a SHEVACH, ‘You grace (perhaps ‘graciously bestow’ or ‘grant’) humanity with DA’AT, knowledge. I think that it’s classy to begin the list of requests with a praise. However, it may be an acknowledgment that we can’t ask for things without the wisdom to know what to request. We need the knowledge before we can start to ask.
But there’s more. Rav Soloveitchik explains:
Without intelligence, man would be a brute in the field and progress would be impossible, for only through intellectual power can man distinguish himself as an independent and powerful being who can free himself from his environment. And at the same time, human intelligence is also the source of man’s misery and suffering. Because of his intellect, man realizes his own tragic destiny and the distressful and sorrowful state of being in which he finds himself. So, before we are ready to present God with our petitions, we state the cause: we pray because we realize that we are lacking.
We pray, because we must, to keep our sanity. We need as much understanding and comprehension as possible to make it through this maze called life. Only God can guide us through this challenge of existence.
Our BRACHA also describes the levels of knowledge which we require to navigate the shoals of our life’s odyssey. There are three levels of intelligence described in our request. The first is CHACHMA which is the beginning of the knowledge process. It is described by Chabad (that group’s name is itself an acronym for CHACHMA, BINA, DA’AT) as the first flash or spark of an idea, as a concept begins to form in one’s mind, the Eureka moment, before development of the insight. Personally, I think that it’s the acquisition of raw data or information which will be processed later for higher purposes.
Stage two is BINA, which usually translated as understanding. It is the beginning of processing the information or development. It is associated with deductive reason. Often our Sages explain that BINA is the discovery of new ideas or knowledge embedded in the facts already available.
Finally, we arrive at DA’AT, often called clarity. It is the understanding of the significance or import of all the acquired knowledge and data. It could also be described as arriving at a conclusion or proof. DA’AT could be the resolution of a profound problem, or the peace of mind found at the end of an arduous search for truth or, at least, resolution. In our BRACHA, there is a debate between NUSCHA’OT, liturgical customs, over whether to call stage three DA’AT or SEICHEL, but it’s the same destination at journey’s end.
Our blessing number four closes with Blessed are You, O Eternal, Who has graciously granted DA’AT. This is important, because as we gaze around at this beautiful world, and notice that no other creations are thinking through issues and dilemmas. Other life on earth is beautiful and beneficial, but not introspective. Only we contemplate ideas and share our conclusions. We must recognize that this ability is a gracious gift from God, and acknowledge that reality.
Armed with this amazing aptitude, we now embark on our recitation to God concerning all our existential needs. We hope and expect that this address isn’t us begging for morsels, but is a dialogue, and that the Holy One Blessed be He is monitoring the call.