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Shiur 05: Gevurot

  • Rav Ezra Bick



           The second berakha of the Shemona Esrei is called "gevurot" (mighty deeds):


You are mighty forever, HaShem, You revive the dead, You are great in saving;

(You cause the wind to blow, and the rain to fall);

You sustain life with kindness,

Revive the dead with great mercy,

Support the falling, heal the sick, free the captive,

and keep His faith with they who sleep in the dust.

Who is like You, Master of might, and who resembles You?!

A King who kills and revives, and causes salvation to flourish.


You are faithful to revive the dead.

Blessed be You, HaShem, who revives the dead.


A.  Gevurot


            What is this berakha about? The name given by the Sages seems to define it well - "gevurot" are mighty deeds, a berakha showing the power of God. This makes sense thematically - first there is a berakha defining who God IS, and then there is one saying what He DOES. We pray to God because of who He is, but also - especially in light of what we saw in the first shiur, that tefila is first and foremost the request of our needs - because of what he is capable of. The berakha does indeed list a number of great deeds, emphasizing that the needs of man - health, freedom, support, life itself - are in the hands of God.


            Examining the berakha, though, reveals a strange concentration on one particular "great deed," one that is, in terms of our daily lives, seemingly irrelevant. It surely is not something we regard as a "need," turning to God to fulfill it. I am referring, of course, to the resurrection of the dead. This berakha seems to be all about the resurrection of the dead.


            First of all, from the formal point of view, this berakha is a blessing on nothing else but the resurrection of the dead. The "chatima" is "mechaye ha-meitim" - who revives the dead.  Naturally, the "me'ein chatima," the introductory phrase before the chatima is also about the resurrection - "You are faithful to revive the dead."


            In this case, we are not limited to the chatima alone. The berakha is riddled with references to the resurrection. It opens with a general statement that "You are mighty forever, HaShem;" and then immediately exemplifies this by stating, "You revive the dead." Five examples of "great deeds" follow, one of which is "Revive the dead with great mercy." The "great deeds" are concluded with the summation that God "keeps His faith with they who sleep in the dust," a reference to the promise of resurrection. Finally, this is followed with an exclamation of wonder - "Who is like You?!" - exemplified by "A King who kills and revives." All told, there are six separate references to the resurrection of the dead in this berakha, from the opening to the conclusion. It would be correct, I think, to say that this is a berakha devoted to this theme. The question now is, why? What is so important about this dogma of Judaism that it should have its own berakha in the Shemona Esrei? Why is it important that one who prays have it in the forefront of his attention when addressing God?


            There is one other interesting phrase in this berakha regarding resurrection. Twice, including the "me'ein chatima,"  God is described as "being faithful" to revive the dead? What is the connection between faith and resurrection?


B. Resurrection


            Belief in the future resurrection of the dead is one of the cardinal dogmas of Judaism. The Mishna in Sanhedrin (10,1) states that one who does not believe in resurrection does not have a portion in the World to Come. The question that we asked about resurrection and prayer can be asked about the dogma itself. Why is this belief so important as to define Judaism? Does it make that real a difference to the life of a Jew? I think that a few simple questions can help crystallize this question. When was the last time that you actively thought about this belief? How would non-belief in resurrection change the rest of the body of Jewish belief, practice, or experience? I suspect that the answers of most of us to these questions would leave the belief in resurrection, even if accepted wholeheartedly, far from the center of living Judaism. But neither the Rambam's famous list of the thirteen principles of faith, nor, even more emphatically, the daily prayer of Shemona Esrei, can leave this belief on the sidelines. We must understand the inner meaning and significance of what appears to be no more than an exciting future miracle. In so doing, we will also understand the meaning of the second berakha of the Shemona Esrei.


            I would like to propose the following: The meaning of the doctrine of the future resurrection of the dead is the guarantee of the ultimate victory of God and the good over the world.


            The world was created with free will. This is not an accident of creation, or an undesirable side-effect, but is the very reason and meaning of creation - that free persons should reach out and discover God and thereby form the basis for His presence in the world.


            Since there is free will, there will also be sin, for "there is not a tzaddik (righteous man) in the world, who does only good but never sins." Therefore, there is also death, for death is the result of sin. Since the life of man is to fulfill his divine image, in which he was created, sin - the destruction of the divine image - means death, by definition. Therefore, death is a natural part of the world. Of course, we see this when we view the world naturally as well, and not only through the prism of the "divine image." All things die, whether in the realm of biological life or in the sphere of thermodynamics. Life requires continuous sustenance, or else it withers, whereas death never turns into life on its own. The path from life to death is one-directional, so eventually, we can expect all things to die.


            But God has promised that eventually, in this world with its natural laws, there will be a final and ultimate victory of the good, "and He will destroy death for eternity, and HaShem God will wipe away tears from off all faces" (Isaiah 25,8). Although free will is guaranteed by creation, nevertheless, ultimately, God promises a final victory for the good over evil. This is the victory of God OVER HIS WORLD. And this is the meaning of "gevurot" - mighty deeds of God. This berakha is not about miracles, wondrous deeds, which dazzle man, nor is it about Divine providence, the hidden hand of God which operates behind the veil of nature and raises the sun in the east, draws plants out of the ground, and moves the blood in your veins. The berakha is about the might of God - God's ability to even overcome His own laws which He invested in nature, in the act of creation of the world. In fact, God is so "mighty" that He even overcomes His own law and logic of justice, which decrees that the sinner is doomed to death. For although the decree is given, God changes the decree.


            If we look at the examples given in this berakha, we see that they are all situations where God changes and overcomes the existing state of affairs. If one is falling - God supports him; if one is sick, God cures him; if one is imprisoned, God breaks the bonds which hold him. The berakha is not telling us that God is responsible for all that occurs to us (which is true), but that no situation, no matter how final or fixed, cannot be undone by Him. The ultimate final state, of course, is death. Death may be seen as the negation of the world and of life - and then you should know that "God kills;" but in a deeper sense, death is inherent in the world, and then you should know not only that God "sustains life with kindness" - itself an act of metaphysical transcendence, overcoming nature - but also that He "revives the dead with great mercy."


C. Faith


            The main and most essential example of this power of God is the resurrection of the dead. But unlike the other examples, whose effects can be witnessed, such as the healing of the sick, we have not witnessed the resurrection. The other examples, without the concluding summation of "who revives the dead," are only partial examples of gevurot, of God's might, for the chains of the world that God breaks were not perfect. Other "powers" can also break prison walls, doctors also cure (in some sense), anyone swift enough and strong enough, can support the falling. And so, in order to see that God is truly powerful, mighty enough to overcome His own creation, we need the eyes of faith. "You are FAITHFUL to revive the dead."


            Now this is a most unusual situation. A berakha, especially one of praise like the three opening berakhot of the Shemona Esrei, is said IN RESPONSE to something. When you see lightning, you recite "... who does acts of creation." When you hear thunder, you recite "... whose power and strength fill the world." Even berakhot before eating can only be recited when the food is before you. In this case, we are responding to the gevura of God - but true and ultimate gevura cannot be seen with natural eyes, for it does not yet exist. It can only be seen with the eyes of faith. This is not accidental. If gevura means the power to overcome the world, then natural eyes, eyes of this world, cannot see it. The berakha is saying something very deep about prayer. He who has only natural eyes, eyes of this world, cannot pray either. To whom will he pray, when the world closes in on him and drags him down, when it no longer supports him or sustains his life? Prayer is not offered to one who is of this world, not to kings or powers of nature, for that is idolatry. Prayer is offered to He who is above this world, whose name is "a King who kills and revives, and causes SALVATION TO FLOURISH." "To flourish" means to make something grow, from little seeds to great oaks. One has to see beyond what IS to see the flourishing of life. This berakha, then, is a berakha of faith, a berakha in response to faith-reality rather than natural reality.


            The addition of "gevurot geshamim," the power of the rains, to this berakha in the winter months should be understood in the same manner. To our scientifically sophisticated eyes, rain may appear to be a perfectly natural phenomenon, to be included in regular natural providence rather than in "gevurot," but this is not the way the Sages saw it. Rain comes from the heavens to revive, to restore, and to resurrect. Perhaps this is only metaphoric, but it is a powerful metaphor, especially in countries, like the Land of Israel, where the summer is without rain and everything dries up. The winter rains are a resurrection of the world, an intrusion from heaven to restore life after the investment of the past, of last year, has proven insufficient. In his commentary to the prayers, R. Yehuda b. Yakar quotes the midrash which points out that for two things the act of God is called "opening": Rain - "God will open his good treasure-house, the heaven, to give the rain of your land in its season" (Deut. 28,12); and resurrection - "For I shall open your graves and bring you forth from your graves, my people, and bring you to the land of Israel" (Ez. 37,12). "Opening" here refers to what I explained above - undoing, unlocking a seal.


            We now understand a singular aspect of this berakha - the exclamation, "Who is like You, Master of might, and who resembles You?!" This is neither a prayer, nor a straightforward expression of praise. Exclamations of wonder do not appear elsewhere in the Shemona Esrei. What has happened here is that all of a sudden our eyes have opened. Before we came to pray, we viewed the world with natural eyes, seeing God within the natural order. Although greater than all, He was yet part of all. Suddenly, we see with eyes of faith, and we perceive that God is above and beyond the natural order, that God can undo the entire natural order, that the basic rules of nature, even death itself, are in His hands. "Who is like You, Master of might - who takes life but can and will also restore it, and so plants the seeds of salvation within the world of decay." The sudden opening of our eyes gives birth to wonder and awe, the words fall out of mouths on their own, spontaneously, for not only God appears in a new light, but the entire world is now different.


            In the first shiur in this series, I claimed that an essential aspect of avoda, the service of God, is that we have no other source for our needs than Him. The second berakha of Shemona Esrei, the expression of "Who is like You, Mi kamocha," completes the definition of God necessary for avoda. God who is reviver of the dead is like no other person or power in the world. This gevura is truly and clearly unique, for it transcends the world and all its laws. "Who is like You" expresses this component of avoda - and now we are ready to approach Him.


D. Order


            The first berakha, I said at the beginning, says who God IS, and the second what He DOES. The midrash, speaking to Abraham, says the following:


R. Yudan said: I will give you a berakha in the Shemona Esrei, but you do not know if Mine comes first or yours comes first. R. Achveya said in the name of R. Zeira: Yours comes before Mine, for first one says Magen Avraham and afterwards Mechaye Ha-meitim. (First avot and then gevurot). (Bereishit Rabba 39,11).


            What does this enigmatic midrash mean? The midrash assigns the first berakha to Avraham, obviously based on the chatima, "magen Avraham." The second berakha is called God's berakha. Of course, every berakha is about God. "Magen Avraham - the shield of Abraham" is also a name of God, not a name of Abraham. The explanation for the appellation of the midrash is that "reviver of the dead" is uniquely Divine. The second berakha, as I explained, defines the awesome uniqueness of God, like Whom there is no one else, nor anyone to whom He can be compared.


            This still leaves the question, what is the meaning of the precedence of "Yours comes before Mine." After all, it is yet true that both berakhot are obviously about God, and not about Abraham. The answer is that the first berakha, as we explained in the previous shiurim, is about our relationship with God, the relationship defined for us by the avot, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Specifically, it was Abraham who created a relationship between man and God in the first place, since before him the relationship had been broken. "Your berakha before Mine," then, means that first we have to establish a relationship between the world and God, between ourselves and God, and only afterwards can the power of God to overturn the world and its natural laws be evident. This is truly a revolutionary thought, and one which divides Judaism from other religions. The presence of God in the world, as we saw in the previous berakha, is created by man who calls out to Him. Salvation - God "causes salvation to flourish" - the overturning of the world and the triumph of the good, the appearance of the God who restores life to the dead, must be preceded by the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The reason is simple (though the metaphysics is not) - God is not opposed to the world; He created it. The world is not evil, depraved, corrupted beyond hope. It is the arena in which the great drama of good and evil, the exercise of man's free will, is played out. The presence of God IN THE WORLD, which is based only on man's avoda, on Israel and the covenant, on our initiative, is the basis for God's triumph OVER THE WORLD. Before there can be "A King who kills and revives, and causes salvation to flourish" there must be a God "who remembers the kindness of the forefathers and brings a redeemer to the children of their children for the sake of His name, with love."


            This was precisely the message that God was giving Abraham in the verses on which the midrash is based (Gen. 12,1-3). God tells Abraham to leave his father's house and begin the journey which will culminate in the giving of the Torah at Sinai, "and you shall be a blessing." Abraham's life is the basis of God's plan for the world. By following the plan, going to the land of Israel, founding the Jewish people, "calling on the name of God" (12,8), Abraham lays the basis for the presence of God in the world. His berakha comes before the berakha of God.