Closing the Cavernous Gap - 7.10.2014

Each morning during services we recite many blessings. The latter segment of these blessings, beginning with hanosein l’sechvi vinah, mirrors the sequence of our awakening in the morning. Beginning with the rooster’s crow, we thank our Maker for the abundant goodness that He bestows on us each day, in every aspect of our lives.

While most of the praises are clear and straightforward, including our need to express appreciation for our unique responsibilities as Jews (“shelo asani…”), our ability to open our eyes, to move our limbs, etc. there are two of the blessings towards the end of the list that may appear a bit curious. They sound similar and seem to have a common purpose, though I suspect that many of us are not quite sure as to what that objective is, especially because of their unusual terminology.

The first blessing is ozer Yisrael b’gevurah, (He) who girds Israel with strength. The second is oter Yisrael b’sifara, (He) who crowns Israel with glory. Clearly, these are not physical actions or provisions that we are describing. So what exactly are the strength and glory that these blessings reference, and why do they belong in this otherwise clear and logical sequence that mirrors our morning routine?

One common explanation is that they refer to tefillin. The first blessing speaks of the hand phylactery, which is girded, or fastened, to our biceps (the symbol of human strength). The second describes the glorified crown that is the head phylactery, which rests at the top of our heads. Taken simply, the position of these two blessings follow after we detail all of God’s other kindnesses, and cap that list with the ultimate objective of using the spiritual power of tefillin to inspire our daily routine and our many actions.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds further insight to these blessings. In his commentary to the prayer book, he suggests that the girding of the first blessing is not a reference to phylacteries, but rather to the concept of separating our upper and lower anatomical halves. The lower half of our bodily structure, he writes, is no different than that of an animal. We locomote, excrete, and procreate just as animals do. What distinguishes us and gives us unique purpose is the upper part of our bodies, the area that controls our thoughts, speech and actions.

When we utter these two blessings, we thank God for giving us the ability to gird and contain our animalistic urges. The strength that we demonstrate in this process ultimately brings us to a level of crowned glory, where we direct all of our thoughts and faculties towards the goal of advancing His will in this world.

Presented in this context, it would appear that the gap between these blessings is relatively small. Begin with self-control as the first step towards spiritual attainment. However, as recent events have shown us, controlling our animalistic tendencies can be extremely challenging, and the fallout for our inability to do so can be devastating.

We are all horrified by the terror and gruesomeness that has dominated the headlines over the past few weeks. We assumed that such hatred and indecency, as subhuman as they were, was relegated to those who are reared in passionate hatred and value death as much as we value life. But then we learned about our people’s own grievous misstep, a calculated gang attack that represented nothing of our national paradigm of compassion and mercy. We were left in a daze, confused, angry and ashamed. And in its wake has come a new round of attacks against our people, physical as well as ideological and political, in our holy land, in Europe and around the world.

Tomorrow morning, as you recite your blessings, take an extra moment to think of these two in particular. Remember that we are special people with a distinct and holy mission. But we can never achieve that level of lofty attainment unless we are willing and able to properly control our animalistic impulses and wants.

The loss of our boys has been excruciatingly painful. We continue to lament the awful outcome that befell these precious souls at the hands of barbaric demons. But we will not be able to do proper service to their memories, nor improve our present, unsettling reality, unless we are able to continually remember why we are here and the unique opportunity that we have been given to wear the special crown of divine glory on our heads.

Naphtali HoffComment