The first blessing of our Amida or Shmone Esre prayer is all about love, kindness and relationship. That changes fast. The second of the trio of blessings described as SHEVACH or ‘praise’ is about power, and is called GEVURA. But we shouldn’t let ourselves be intimidated, because the Sages who composed this script for our conversation with God remind us that God’s unlimited capability is utilized for good and the benefit humanity. This is a complex text, and we’ll navigate it carefully.
We begin with ‘You are GIBOR!’ What do we mean when we discuss God’s GEVURA or unlimited strength? Well, like so much else in Jewish tradition it’s an argument. Many aver that we are discussing those activities which can only be accomplished by God. The Vilna Gaon disagrees, and explains that the powers listed here are about activities which can’t be predicted or regulated. Things like rain or fertility which can’t be predicted easily. These issues contain uncertainties, and are by no means inevitable.
The only certainty is that God is GIBOR, and that this Divine power leads to RAV L’HOSHIYA, immense salvation. This power will always be utilized for good and spiritual advancement, the betterment of humanity. We call this YESHUA, deliverance or redemption.
At this point, we encounter the dominant example of God’s GEVURA, namely MECHAYE HaMEITIM, giving life to the dead, or lifeless. This exact phrase appears three times in our blessing, and twice more in slightly different wording, MEMIT U’MECHAYE and L’HACHAYOT MEUTIM. So, the famous question is: Why do we emphasize this particular aspect of God’s GEVURA?
This question sparks an interesting dichotomy between the two most popular English translations of our traditional Siddur. Art Scroll goes for the more traditional answer, that we repeat this phrase because there are so many examples of God giving life to the lifeless, unborn, or dead. These include our daily awakening from ‘deathlike slumber’, the bringing of rain which has life sustaining qualities, and, of course, the literal resurrection of the dead. I would add to that list the initiation of life during the Creation week and God’s continued involvement in fertility as described in the beginning of tractate Ta’anit.
On the other hand, The Koren Siddur, with commentary by Rav Sacks OB”M offers an historical approach. Rav Sacks wrote: The fivefold reference to the resurrection of the dead reflects the controversy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the late Second Temple era. The Sadducees rejected belief in resurrection; the Pharisees, whose heirs we are, affirmed it (p. 110). It is true that the Shmone Esre prayer did contain material meant to bolster rabbinic positions, but I’m not sure that this was the intent of our particular blessing.
We wholeheartedly accept the veracity of the idea that there is some form of life after death, without going into the myriad debates about its format. There are enough references to its existence in the Prophets and rabbinic literature to attest to its normative position in our tradition. The Mishne at the end of Sanhedrin is very clear: And these are the people who have no share in the World-to-Come: One who says: There is no resurrection of the dead from the Torah (10:1).
Back to our second blessing, after the declaration about resurrection, we have the praise of God for bringing the rain in its proper season. This declaration is seasonal based upon the needs of Eretz Yisrael, rain in the winter and dew in the summer. This is not a request for rain, that would come in either the blessing about livelihood or the general requesting blessing, SHMA KOLEINU. Remember the first three blessings are about praising God, not asking for things.
The next section has a list of specific powerful activities carried out by God: sustains all life with kindness (CHESED), revives the dead with great compassion (RACHAMIM), supports the fallen, heals the ill, and frees the captive. This list inspired Rav Soloveitchik to remind us of the rule of Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim, 1:54):
We are permitted to describe God’s attributes or actions only if they impose upon man an ethical obligation. We have the imperative to emulate the ways of God…It would have been prohibited for us to praise Him in any way if that praise did not obligate us to follow in His ways (Worship of the Heart, p. 159).
When God performs all of these mighty deeds of CHESED, our Maker is not only fulfilling the Divine will, there is also a continued implementation of the Covenant with our Patriarchs. This eternal deal is referred to in the phrase: Who maintains His faithfulness to those asleep in the dust. This statement is based on a verse: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). But I have always connected this to God’s eternal relationship and commitment to our Patriarchs. This line contributes to davening in Ma’arat HaMachpela, above their eternal abode, so very intense and satisfying.
As the blessing moves toward denouement, we paraphrase the well-known and oft quoted exclamation of the Jews at the sight of the Splitting of the Sea: Who is like unto You amongst the mighty? Who is like unto You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, doing wonders? (Shmot 15:11). In our blessing, our Sages rendered this idea: Who is like unto You, Master of might, and to whom can You be compared.
It could be said that this is the main idea of our blessing. Personally, I believe that it is secondary to the idea of God the Provider of life to the dead, but it is a powerful statement of the omnipotence of God. Compared to God there are no competitors.
Our second blessing of the Eighteen, ends by echoing the primary idea: Blessed are You, Reviver of the dead. We have moved from declaring that we have inherited an intimate relationship with God from ancestors in the first blessing to this resounding statement of the incomparable might of our Creator. From here we will move to the third great SHEVACH (praise) of our Maker: God is transcendent. That’s to be our next discussion.