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The Basics

About half of all Americans claim to pray daily. That’s a lot. The things they claim to pray for are varied indeed. Along with the expected items like forgiveness and health, many people pray for the success of their sports team or to find a parking space. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t remember praying for my sports team since 1967, when my prayers for the Red Sox were thwarted by the curse of Babe Ruth. In my experience as a rabbi answering questions about prayer, I think that safety, health and prosperity are the most common goals people desire Divine help for. These are the three issues in blessings 7, 8 and 9 of our Shmoneh Esrei prayer. 

Blessing 7 is called GE’ULA or redemption. But it’s not about redemption like from Egypt or the future Messianic Era. It’s about being saved from suffering and oppression in our day to day lives. Throughout history (at least the last 2,000 years of it) Jews have been an oppressed minority. This blessing is mostly about begging God to save us from being trapped by forces beyond our control. Often Jews have been victims of cruel regimes, and this blessing is about being saved from the long list of brutal overlords who have victimized us. 

Until this blessing, the issues discussed have been spiritual in nature, this and the next two blessings are about requesting help from God concerning our physical existence. But there is a spiritual aspect of note. We ask to God to help against these forces which we can’t control, and then say it’s ‘for Your name’s sake’. Why? It’s similar to what Moshe Rabbeinu said to God while pleading for the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf: Let not Your anger blaze forth against Your people…Let not the Egyptians say that it was with an evil intent God delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains (Shmot 32:11-12). 

We are God’s nation and representatives in this earthly realm. It does cause a CHILLUL HASHEM, desecration of God’s holy name, when we wallow in shame and disgrace. We should never cause embarrassment to God, and Moshe begged God to not be the cause of such a debacle.  

The Sages ended this blessing with the words GOEL YISRAEL, Who redeems Yisrael. This statement is in the present tense. We see the GA’AL YISRAEL, in the past tense very often. When we praise and thank God, we refer to the past. When we entreat God to save us, we speak in the present tense. 

Blessing number 8 contains the issue that I was asked about the most during my rabbinic career. More people asked me about praying for an ill relative or friend than any other topic, and by a wide margin. I don’t think a week ever went by without someone either asking me to pray for someone or seeking advice about Psalms or prayers to recite for an ill person. It’s no accident that we recite the MI SHEBEIRACH for the ill, with great solemnity during our services. 

This request has an odd feature about it. We say ‘heal us and we will be healed, save us and we will be saved’. That seems odd. Of course, if we’re healed then we’re healed. Well, maybe not. Doctors are great, but they don’t always succeed. With God, when healing is on the agenda, it succeeds.  

The line before the closing BERACHA is: For you God, are a faithful and compassionate Healer. Why must we emphasize compassion in the healing process? Sadly, there are many situations when the healing process is extremely uncomfortable and painful. We believe that God takes the least painful route towards the healing process. 

As we close this blessing we recite: ROFEH CHOLEI AMO YISRAEL (Who heals the ill of His nation Yisrael). This is in contrast to the blessing for bodily functions, when we say: Healer of all flesh. Why is our blessing focused of Jews, while the other BERACHA is universal? I think that we definitely concern ourselves with the whole world, but Shmoneh Esrei is the prayer for the home team, for the heirs of the Covenant of the Patriarchs, which we reference in the opening blessing. 

Our final blessing for today is blessing number 9, for livelihood. We call this BIRCHAT HaSHANIM, the blessings of the years. Historically, our ancestors were agrarian. Prosperity was an annual concern, based upon harvests. The ability to survive and thrive was calibrated by annual rainfall figures. Therefore, this BERACHA emphasizes rain. Even though this blessing appears in the part of the Shmoneh Esrei concerned with personal needs, nevertheless the Talmud informs us that this request is based upon the needs of Eretz Yisrael. If another part of the world requires rain, we ask for it in the general request BERACHA, SHMA KOLEINU. 

Then we request SAB’EINU M’TUVECHA, satisfy us through Your goodness. This is a more general request for our needs to be taken care of. At this point we should have in mind anyone we know who may require Divine support for their livelihood.   

We then ask that this year should be blessed ‘like the best of years’. This, again, makes most sense in an agricultural context. In a business framework, it may make sense to ask for the greatest productivity or profit ever, like sales records. However, in agriculture there are only so many acres available for cultivation, so it made sense to ask for one of the really good years.  

The closing blessing praises God as the Blesser of Years. This makes senses, of course, in the agricultural context. I must add, though, that traditionally, we viewed our blessings as an annual issue. Our Sages believed that our fate for the year was established on Rosh Hashanah. We always viewed God’s bounty in that yearly format. 

The Vilna Gaon pointed out that we should ask for TAL or dew in the summer time, because it’s important to recognize the little items which contribute to our well-being, as well as the large cloudbursts of support. We sometimes ignore those small things which can make a big difference. 

To a certain extent, these three blessings are the heart of the norms of prayers to God. We next turn to the specific requests which are required for the maintenance of well-run society.    

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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