21: Shomea Tefila

  • Rav Ezra Bick

A.  The last request - prayer


            The seventeenth berakha, and the last one of the "requests," is "Shomea Tefila":


Hear our voices, HaShem our God,

Spare and have mercy on us,

And accept our prayers with mercy and favor.

For you are a God who hears prayers and beseeching,

and do not dismiss us empty-handed from before You, our King.

For You hear the prayers of Your people Israel with mercy.

Blessed are You, HaShem, who hears prayer.


            This time it really seems simple.  There are no inexplicable phrases here, no metaphors demanding elucidation, and the theme is simple and uncompounded.  This is a berakha where we ask God to hear our prayers.  What could be more straightforward? This is going to be a very short shiur.


            Maybe so - but there is one small question I think we should ask.  Indeed, the theme of this berakha is a request that God hear our prayers.  The question is - why? Why do we need to ask God to hear the prayers we have already offered? A simple comparison:


Case A.  I ask God to grant me health.

Case B.  I ask God to grant me health and to hear my prayer.


            Have I asked for anything additional in the second case? Will I receive more, more health, perhaps? And if you will claim that a prayer is not acceptable unless we ask God to accept it, then why not ask God to accept this last berakha-request as well?


Case C.  I ask God to grant me health, to hear my request for health, and to hear my request that He hear my request for health....  etc.


                   Something is strange here.


B.  Prayer is a need


            A long time ago, when we were at the very beginning of the Shemoneh Esrei, I defined the middle berakhot as defining the Sages' view of the needs of Man.  Each request identifies a different basic need.  One may, of course, add his own personal requests to the Shemoneh Esrei, but these thirteen "fixed" berakhot represent the permanent, basic needs of anyone who stands before God.  Applying that definition to our berakha, we come to the astonishing conclusion that prayer is a need of man, no less than food, redemption, knowledge, and atonement.  If, as I claimed in the first shiur of the series, we serve God by presenting our needs to Him, and Him alone, then in this case we serve Him by presenting to Him our need to pray to Him.


            Now simple examination of the berakha immediately discloses that we are not praying that we be able to pray, but that our prayers be "accepted." This makes sense in light of the preceding paragraph.  We serve God by presenting our need to pray TO HIM.  It is not that we have a need to say certain words in a synagogue, but that we have a need, a crucial, existential need, to be able to come before God and speak with Him, worship Him, serve Him.  And since this is not merely a reiteration of the preceding berakhot, this need to pray is not the need to fulfill the needs expressed in the preceding sections.  We do not have a need to pray to God BECAUSE He is the only source for the fulfillment of our other needs.  Even if we were not to have the other needs expressed in the first twelve requests, we would have a need to pray before God.  In other words, this need is a RELIGIOUS one.  Man has an existential need not only for food, and not only for atonement and Divine knowledge, but also for Divine communication, companionship, and relationship. 


            This is what "acceptance" of our prayers means - not necessarily a favorable answer to the previous requests, but acceptance in the sense that the paper on which we have presented our requests is registered, accepted, into the Divine registry.  This is clearly indicated by what would otherwise be a puzzling, excessively modest request in this berakha.  "And do not dismiss us empty-handed from before You, our King." We have just presented a long list of requests.  When I asked for health, was I asking for a little health? When I asked for sustenance, did I suggest that I would settle for half a meal a day? When I asked for redemption, would a small lightening of the burden of the world have sufficed? Of course not! In each berakha, I asked for the fulfillment of all my needs.  This does not indicate that I imagine that I will definitely receive the maximum, which would indeed be hubris of the worst kind.  It is true that after the fact, if God gives me a small fraction of what I asked for, I will - hopefully - thank Him wholeheartedly for what I know is still more than I deserve.  But in the prayer itself, we do not lower our sights.  We present the whole list, all of our needs, precisely because we know that there is nowhere else to present this list, and to have aspirations for less than the maximum would be neither human nor a reflection of the image of God.  So why, after having asked for everything, do we pray that God not send us back to the world "empty-handed"? Is this some sort of fallback, a last-ditch request that if we will not receive all that we requested, at least give us a small token of something?


            I think not.  This berakha is not about the subjects of the other berakhot.  This berakha is about communication and service of God itself.  We have spoken - we ask that this prayer be a real communication, that a true measure of contact with God exist.  Give us something and not leave us empty-handed, not because that will be a partial fulfillment of the previous berakhot, but because that will be a fulfillment of the need to have contact with the Divine Spirit.  The crucial word here is "reikam" (empty-handed).  "Reikam" means "empty" (and not really empty-handed) - do not leave us empty, meaningless, lonely and lost.  The full sentence reads, "Do not send us from before You, our King, empty." We have come BEFORE YOU; do not SEND US - away - without any sense of contact, without anything FROM YOU.  (Compare: "But to the sons of the concubines which Avraham had, Avraham gave presents, and SENT THEM AWAY from his son Yitzchak while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country" [Gen.  24,6].  What was Avraham doing? He was severing any link, any sense of obligation, between Yitzchak and the other children.  He was "dismissing" them.  We are praying not that we receive presents from God, but that we be not dismissed from his presence.  As the case of Avraham makes clear, it is possible to receive presents even while being finally and completely dismissed).


            In other words, the berakha is not a second try at getting what we have already asked for, but a direct request for what was behind all the other berakhot - do not only fulfill our requests but make our meeting one of personal contact and religious content.


C.  Rachamim - Mercy


            The word "mercy" (the Hebrew root "RChM") appears three times in our berakha.  There appears to be a special connection between rachamim and the acceptance of prayer - "For You hear the prayers of Your people Israel with mercy." Nusach Sefarad introduces the berakha by turning to God as "Merciful Father."


            It is worthwhile to compare this berakha to one we recite when we are desperate to receive a favorable response to our requests.  When the Jewish community is in trouble, for one reason or another, we institute a fast day, beseeching God to help us.  There is a special prayer added to the Shemoneh Esrei on such an occasion - "aneinu." "Answer us, HaShem, answer us, on the fast day of our affliction, for we are in great trouble." Amazingly enough, in this entire berakha, we do not ask for "mercy" even once (look it up; don't rely on me).  In general, I believe that calling on God's mercy will generally be found in a prayer that is related to one's sin, such as all the prayers of Yom Kippur.  This rule is not absolute, and I am sure you can find plenty of exceptions.  Nonetheless, finding "rachamim" as so central a theme of our berakha, where all we are asking is that God answer our prayers, is extraordinary.  The explanation, I believe, is based on what we have asserted above.  Rachamim here is not a means to having God grant what He would have otherwise denied.  It is not an appeal to increase the chances of our receiving the prosperity, health, wisdom, and national goals we asked for in the previous berakhot.  Rachamim here is requested for its own sake.  It is the content of the request to have our prayers be accepted.  This berakha is about our need to pray, to come before God, to have a personal relationship with Him.  On our side, that is expressed by prayer.  On His side, it is called rachamim. 


            The medieval commentators point out that the root of rachamim - RChM - is the word for "womb" (rechem).  The feelings of a mother for her child, who has stirred and grown within her, is the root meaning of mercy, rachamim.  This is different than the pity which we feel because of moral imperative.  It is an emotion stirred by the fact that we feel we are one with the other.  The other person MOVES something within me, for we are somehow one.  In Aramaic, the sister language of Hebrew, RChM means love, and is not necessarily connected to a pitiable state.  This is the case in some uses of rachamim in Tanakh as well: "Can a mother forget her child, or not 'rachem' the fruit of her belly?" (Is. 49,15).  Rachamim is the opposite of forgetting.  It means the consciousness of a mother for her child, always in her thoughts.  Of course, the most dramatic expression of this connection, the one which calls forth a responsive action, is when the child is in trouble and calls out for help.  Then the mother jumps and rushes to hold the little child, soothing his pain, and wiping away his tears.  I do not think we would call this "mercy" in English; surely the mother would not think of herself as having mercy on her child.  Rachamim is internal, a kind of connectedness that derives from identity, from a feeling of oneness mingled with a concomitant responsibility and care.


            In other words, rachamim is not induced by being on our knees, but by our being in need, dependent, by our being recipients of God's grace and love. 


            Accordingly, the opening of this berakha in Nusach Sefarad - "Av HaRachaman" means "Father who loves as a father loves." The conclusion is "For You hear the prayers of Your people Israel with mercy."


D.  Whose Prayers?


            I have not, in general, emphasized differences between Nusach Sefarad and Nusach Ashkenaz in these shiurim.  Generally speaking, the differences are minor and have not influenced the basic points of each shiur.  In this case, there is a small, but highly significant difference in the last line of this berakha. 


Nusach Ashkenaz:

For You hear the prayers of Your people Israel with mercy.


Nusach Sefarad: For You hear the prayers of every mouth.


            The difference is obvious.  Nusach Ashkenaz refers, as do nearly all the berakhot, to the Jews only.  We are familiar with this sort of conclusion in the berakha for health ("who heals the illnesses of His people Israel"), and it is implicit in most of the other berakhot as well.  Nusach Sefarad here explicitly widens the focus of the berakha to all people, perhaps even to all life.  The scriptural basis for this phrase is a verse in Psalms: "You, Who hears prayer, to You shall come all flesh" (65,3).


            Based on what I suggested above, Nusach Ashkenaz is understood.  The berakha is not suggesting that God does not hear the prayers of non-Jews.  Rather, there is a special connection established between the Jew who prays, who comes before His King and engages in the intimate relationship I described, which is the subject of this berakha.  This does not even necessarily imply that a Jew, by virtue of his being Jewish, will receive more of his requests than a non-Jew.  The berakha, as I pointed out, is not dealing with ensuring a greater return on our prayers, but in establishing a kind of relationship. 


            When King Solomon completed building the Temple, he addressed God and explicitly prayed that God hear prayers and grant requests.  First he spoke specifically of the prayers of the Jews, who had built the Temple. 


May Your eyes be open toward this house day and night,

to the place of which You have said, My name shall be there:

to hear the prayer which Your servant shall pray in this place....

If a man should sin against his fellow....

If Your people Israel shall be smitten before the enemy....

If the heavens be shut up and there be not rain....

If there be famine on the earth, pestilence....

Every prayer, every supplication which any man of Your people Israel, where a man knows the affliction of his heart and he lifts his hands to this house.

You shall hear from the heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive and act, and give to every man according to his ways, as You know his heart....  (I Kings 8,29-39).


            But immediately after, Solomon prayed for the prayers of the non-Jew as well:


Also the stranger, who is not of Your people Israel, who will come from a far land for the sake of Your name;

For they shall hear of Your great name and of Your mighty hand and outstretched arm, and he shall come and pray to this house;

You shall hear from the heaven Your dwelling place, and do all that the stranger called out, in order that all the peoples of the earth know Your name, to fear You like Your people Israel, and to know that Your name is called over this house which I have built.  (41-43).


            Both prayers will be answered, for it is clear that God hears the prayers of all flesh.  But God's response to the prayers of His people is based on that God "knows his heart;" in other words it derives from the attribute of "rachamim" as I explained above.  This berakha is therefore understood to be within the framework of the special relationship of God to His people. 


            Nusach Sefarad, at this closing line of the requests, deliberately widens the scope, looking forward to the day when "all flesh will come to You." The verse "You, Who hears prayer, to You shall come all flesh" does not state that God will hear the prayers of all who pray to Him, but rather the converse - since God hears prayers, THEREFORE all flesh SHALL COME to Him.  Prayer is the cause of something greater, the coming to God, the cleaving unto Him.  That all flesh shall be attracted to God, shall want to come to Him and be with Him, is a goal and a dream.  Nusach Sefarad could not conclude our own prayers without hinting at this goal.



            We have concluded the middle thirteen berakhot of requests.  Next shiur, we shall  begin the concluding section, beginning with "retzei." I leave you with a puzzle.  The content of the next berakha appears to be nearly identical to the one we have just concluded.  Not only is this a separate berakha, but it is considered halakhically to be a separate section, technically not a request at all.  What is the difference between the two berakhot?