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So Long, Farewell

Well, here we are at the nineteenth blessing of this eighteen-blessing prayer. Ignoring the anomaly of that statement, we can, to a certain extent compare this BERACHA to the nineteenth hole on golf courses, just without the alcohol. There are some scholars who posit that this was the added blessing to make nineteen. Even though I reject that approach, because traditional sources and symmetry militate against it, it is fascinating to view a blessing about SHALOM as a farewell. We are, indeed, bidding adieu to this contact with God, but I prefer two other reasons for ending this beautiful prayer with a call to SHALOM. 

I strongly believe that the real reason we end Shmoneh Esrei with the blessing of Shalom is because of a Mishna: Rebbe Shimon ben Chalaftah said: The Holy One Blessed Be He never found a vessel to contain blessing for Yisrael other than SHALOM (Uktzin 3:12). This Mishna ends the six orders of Mishna, and parts with the verse: God gives power to His people; God blesses His people with SHALOM (Tehillim 29:11). 

So, it is a farewell, but, more importantly, it informs us that all the blessings that we have sought can’t be contained and provide their full power without unity and peace within AM YISRAEL. SHALOM is much more than lack of war. It is a state of harmony and connectivity among the whole nation. If the nation is divided and bickering, then the blessings, even if granted will seep out through the cracks between the members of the community.  

Thank God, we are presently experiencing perfect peace between the various communities in our nation. Oh, wait! Our nation is a work in progress, and still needs to fill in the cracks which separate us. We still have groups that believe that loyalty to their tribe or point of view takes precedence over unifying God’s people. So, sad that we still can’t decide if it’s a horse or a mule! 

To best understand the structure of the blessing, though, there is a third vision of our blessing of SHALOM. It’s connected to the Priestly Blessing which we just recited. It’s this position which motivated those Ashkenazic communities who only recite this longer version of the BERACHA when BIRCHAT COHANIM could be performed, as opposed to the shorter SHALOM RAV, abundant peace.  

This explains the six blessings at the beginning of our BERACHA: SHALOM, unity; TOVA, goodness; BERACHA, blessing; CHEN, grace; CHESED, kindness; and RACHAMIM, compassion. These six forms of Divine bounty reflect the six verbs in BIRCHAT COHANIM. We’ve just shifted SHALOM to the beginning of this list, so as to connect it to the SHALOM at the end of the Priestly Benediction. BTW there are also six terms of blessing in the YA’ALEH V’YAVO prayer. 

We then address God as AVINU, Our Parent. Rav Kook explains that this expresses intimacy. We feel very close to God by means of this heartfelt expression of what is on our minds and in our souls, which is the Amida prayer. We then, again, emphasize the unity of AM YISRAEL, by asking that we be blessed K’ECHAD, as one organic entity.  

At this point, we up the ante beyond the intimacy of a parent to a child. We beg that this experience should be B’OHR PANECHA, ‘with the Light of Your Countenance’. What is this phenomenon? It’s an echo of the transcendent experience of Mt. Sinai, akin to prophecy or least Divine Inspiration. It is with this OHR PANECHA that the Torah is still communicated to AM YISRAEL. We are pleading for a daily epiphany. We can’t leave this rendezvous without at least requesting this boon. 

Now something truly cool happens. We shift from our six-fold plea to a seven-fold appeal: TORAT CHAIM, Torah of life; AHAVAT CHESED, love of kindness; TZADAKA, righteousness; BERACHA, blessing; RACHAMIM, compassion; CHAYIM, life; and, again, SHALOM! 

We have transcended the normal demands and requests of the six weekdays. We have arrived at a spiritual solicitation to God to help us ascend to a new, higher level which we hope to experience on Shabbat. This explains why we can recite this BERACHA, which clearly contains requests, on Shabbat. Spiritual requests are always allowed. 

Actually, that’s exactly the point we make in the last phrase before the closing BERACHA: May it be TOV (so much more than good: appropriate, constant and eternal) to bless Your nation Yisrael, at every time, in every hour with Your SHALOM! This is not any SHALOM. We can achieve peace, and even a semblance of unity on our own, but now we beg for Your SHALOM! 

What is God’s SHALOM? Rav Soloveitchik pointed out that each one of us has a distinct personality with individual needs. These differences are the seeds of conflict in our world. However, as we step back from our Amida we recite: OSEH SHALOM B’MROMAV, He Who makes peace on High, May God bring this SHALOM onto us and all Yisrael! We are ending with the plea: Please, Please, Please bring a little of that Divine Shalom, which is truly altruistic and unifying, down here!! 

The Chofetz Chaim in his Bi’ur Halacha commentary on the Shulchan Aruch says that one can always say the magnificent longer version of this blessing, even if one dwells in a community that doesn’t recite it at Mincha and Ma’ariv. This is the custom of Rav Soloveitchik and I have adopted it as well. It’s a wonderful coda to this daily encounter with God. 

This magnificent blessing concludes: Blessed are You, God, who blesses His people Yisrael with Shalom! Which is so much more than a lack of war and strife, but a positive presence of unity and sense of communal purpose. 

You might think that we have completed our task of explaining the Shmoneh Esreh prayer, but you’d be wrong. There are customs to recite various declarations before moving on from this prayer. We will explore some ideas in those additions, please, God, next week.         

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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