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Shiur #22: Avoda

  • Rav Ezra Bick

Favor, HaShem our God, Your people Israel,

and listen to their prayers;

And return the service to the sanctuary of Your house;

And accept with favor the sacrifices of Israel and their prayers;

And may the service of Your people Israel be favorable forever.

Let our eyes behold Your return to Zion with mercy.

Blessed are You HaShem, Who returns His presence to Zion.



            This berakha, known by the first word, "retzei," presents one very simple problem - what is it really about? On the face of it, it seems to repeat the theme of the previous berakha, a request that our prayers be accepted by God. This repetition is first of all unnecessary, but even more so, it leaves us wondering how the Sages could have seen the last three berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei, beginning with "retzei," as a separate section, basically distinct from the previous one, which consisted of the thirteen "requests." Why is "shema koleinu" a request, and "retzei" a berakha of "hodaya," of thanksgiving?


A. Bakashot and Hodaya


            Let me first explicate the last statement. There are a number of laws involving the Shemoneh Esrei which assume a basic division of the prayer into three parts, shevach (praise), bakasha (request), and hodaya (thanksgiving). For instance, One is permitted to add personal requests in the middle section of "bakashot," but not in the opening "shevach" or the concluding "hodaya" (Shulchan Arukh 112,1). The Talmud (Berakhot 34a) explains:


The first (three) are like a servant who presents his master's praises; the middle ones are like a servant who asks for a prize from his master; the last ones are like a servant who has received a prize from his master and is taking his leave and going.


            It is clear from this statement that the last three are not basically "requests," and therefore one does not add personal requests to them. Our question is, why is specifically our berakha one of "taking leave and going" rather one of "asking for a prize from his master"?


B. Taking leave


            The last three berakhot are usually defined as "hodaya" or "gratitude." This definition is, in fact, given by the Rambam at the very beginning of the Laws of Prayer (1,2). But since the second of these three berakhot is also called "gratitude," which is clearly its theme, the use of this term for all three berakhot obviously requires some clarification. In light of the Talmudic passage I just quoted, I believe we can sharpen our understanding of the concept underlying the concluding berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei.


            This passage provides a framework for the entire Shemoneh Esrei that is, I think, very different from what most of us normally feel. I imagine that anyone who comes to pray may very well feel a need to have a religious experience, perhaps to come close to God, perhaps to request something important. This passage places prayer in a forgotten framework, that of service. The imagery used is nearly incomprehensible to us, for who of us has ever seen a real king. More importantly, we have been overwhelmingly educated in a manner that devaluates the relationship that a "servant" has towards his king, his lord and master. Basic democracy, the egalitarian value of human dignity, the rights and worth of man, have all come together to teach us to even look down on the self-abnegation inherent in service. The whole thing is based on the feeling that one is attending to one's betters, to superiors, and the first thing we learn, both as democratic westerners and as Jews, is that all men are created equal. Although our minds and beliefs tell us that God is, of course, not included in that principle, we have lost the understanding of the metaphor of service to the king, because we have no "natural" model for such a relationship. It is not only kings who have been dethroned - all political leaders are not more than our neighbors now, and even fathers are no longer patriarchs, just as teachers are not wise men. None of the halakhic expressions of "kavod" and "yir'a" (respect and awe) - standing up when a teacher or parent enters the room, not sitting in his place, not addressing him by his name - seem natural anymore, precisely because of the overwhelming leveling of society brought about by the great principles of freedom and equality.


            For the first two sections of the Shemoneh Esrei, the Talmudic parable changes but does not transform their meaning. The praise which precedes the requests is still praise; rescued, I think, from being sycophancy addressed to someone from whom we hope to achieve benefit by being redefined as the opening before someone whom we revere. The requests are still requests of our needs, offered not only because we hope to gain something, but out of a recognition that God is the master of all. It is in the third section that the full force of the parable becomes evident. "Taking leave" is barely related to any modern experience, and it takes a major effort of imagination to begin realize what we are doing - and more importantly, to feel it within.


            "Taking leave" has a formal, almost feudal ring to it. I dare say, no one takes leave anymore. It is what you do when you need permission to leave; for instance, when a servant takes leave of his master, or a knight of his lord. In order to leave, one blesses the lord, thanking him for his graciousness. Of course, we all know that the way to take leave of someone in Hebrew is to wish him "shalom," to bless him with peace. Indeed, this is the theme of the last berakha of the Shemoneh Esrei, the conclusion of the section we are examining.  In a more general sense, taking leave of God means expressing those ideas which form part of what it means to leave the presence of God in order to go out into the world which He has created. The last two of these berakhot fit easily into this scheme. First comes a formal expression of gratitude ("modim"), not, I think, for His having granted the requests which we just made, but for the constant blessings we receive by virtue of being created. Next we pray for "shalom," not because this is an existential need of man, but because this is the fulfillment of God's creation and a realization of His relationship with the world. In human terms, we are wishing Him "shalom." We shall, of course, return to these two berakhot in the coming weeks. Now we have to understand, in light of the concept of "leave-taking," the first of the last three berakhot, "avoda."


C. Avoda


            The name by which the Sages refer to our berakha is "Avoda" - Service. Avoda refers first and foremost to the service in the Temple, the order of daily sacrifices, the lighting of the menora, the incense, and other procedures. Although the word "avoda" is mentioned only twice in the berakha, it is clear from the "chatima" that the thoughts of the Temple are central to this berakha. From the opening, which seems to be about acceptance of our prayers, the berakha moves to the theme the return of the Temple service, finally concluding with "Who returns His presence to Zion." The berakha appears to seamlessly blend two themes - the acceptance of our prayers, and the return of the Temple service.


            It would appear that this berakha is about a close relative of the theme of the previous one - the acceptance of prayers - but in a slightly, but highly significantly, different manner. This berakha is not about the acceptance of prayer, but about the acceptance of sacrifice. The crucial word here, as my master, Rav Soloveitchik zt"l would often point out, is the verb "retzei." In my rendition above, I translated this, for want of a better word, as "favor," which preserves to some extent the root of "retzei" - ratzon, ratza - which mean to desire, or to be pleased. At the end of the Shemoneh Esrei, we recite "yehiyu liratzon imrei phi" - may the words of my mouth find favor, be pleasant in Your eyes. This word, in its different forms, is found repeatedly in the Torah in relation with sacrifices and other parts of the Temple service. Sacrifices are to be offered "lirtzonkhem" (Lev. 19,5;22,19;22,29;23,11). If a sacrifice is accepted and the owner atoned for, this is called "nirtza" (Lev. 1,4). In the famous verse describing the future return to the Temple, God declares, "And I shall bring them to My holy mountain, and I shall make them rejoice in My house of prayer, their offerings and sacrifices shall be 'liratzon' on My altar" (Is. 56,7). This berakha, then, is about our prayers being acceptable, pleasing, favored, by God in the way He declared that he would accept and favor the sacrifices.


            Once we place this prayer in the context of leave-taking, the difference between it and the previous berakha becomes clear. "Shema koleinu," as I explained, was about a NEED of man. We needed that our prayers be accepted, that a personal communication be established between ourselves and God. The verb used was "kabel" (accept), and the typical adjective was "rachamim" (mercy, love). It was about our relationship with God. Therefore it was a request, in the sense that we asked for what we needed. The next berakha, "retzei," is not about something we need. With all the importance that the Sages ascribed to the Temple, and to the very basic sense of loss we experience in its functional absence, they declared that the service of God is possible today, through prayer, defined as "the service of the heart." At the very least, at the very moment we are engaged in prayer, standing before God, we do not experience a pressing existential need to stand and serve in the Temple. We DO feel a need to feel the closeness of the Shekhina, the Presence of God - and for that there was a request that He rest His presence in Yerushalayim. But we are not, at least at these moments, feeling a basic inability to perform service - for we are doing that, in a manner which the Sages insist is not inferior to the Temple service.


            Rather, "retzei" is part of our leave-taking. In what may appear to be an audacious move on our part, we ask God that He find our prayer to be acceptable, pleasing in His eyes. We are not praying for ourselves but for Him. When one leaves God, after having "taken up His time," so to speak, we pray that it should have been a good experience for Him, that He favor our prayer - not so that we should have a positive response to our requests, but that the prayer itself be a favorable sacrifice. The Sages state that the prayers replace the daily sacrifices. Now we pray that that be so, that just as God has stated that He desired the sacrifices and that the smoke would rise and be favorable - liratzon - so too our prayers - and ourselves as well. Is this "chutzpa?" Can one presume to think that his prayers could be a pleasant experience for God? I do not know why, but the answer is yes, for that is what the Torah has stated is the fact of the Temple sacrifices. The great Mussar authors have turned this into a basic principle of all religious life - one acts so as to give "nachat ruach" to one's Creator. "Nachat," for those fooled by the sefardi pronunciation, is the same as the yiddish word "nachas," the feeling a child gives a parent when he does something well, anything at all. The desire to give "nachas" to God is an essential part of the religious personality and is the other side of the "service of God." We cannot actually provide any service to God, nor does He need any. We can give Him "nachat ruach," for that is what He desires from His children.


            The berakha therefore states, as we begin our farewell from God, that we hope and pray that He has found our visit to be one of "retzei," that He has had pleasure (whatever that means) in both us and our prayers. From this we immediately proceed to the ideal model of God having the "liratzon" experience with the world, which is the Temple service. "Return the service to the sanctuary of your house... and may the service be liratzon there." We know that God is He who does favor our lives, our prayers, our deeds, when they are directed according to His will and His Torah, for He is the God "Who returns His presence to Zion," as He has promised.



In short, there are two aspects to Divine service. The first, which I tried to explain in the first shiur of this series, is our recognition that our needs are all dependent totally on God. This is expressed by our addressing our needs solely to Him, which we did in the previous section. The second is by our giving Him, who needs nothing, something of ourselves. This is done by sacrificing, which we cannot do in the manner prescribed, but is nonetheless fulfilled by the same prayers and requests, for by serving God in the first manner, we give Him "nachat ruach" in the second. When we realize that, we no longer ask for anything for ourselves, hoping to benefit physically or spiritually from His generosity, but we ask and hope that we have somehow achieved that goal of tefila. This is not "request" in the primal sense, in that it does not reflect our need. It is the way one takes leave of the King.