by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 27, 2016
The venerated father-in-law of this essay’s author, R. Hersh Rosenhan, one of the earliest devoted students in America of the illustrious Torah luminary R. Aaron Kotler, who imbibed much of his beloved mentor’s wisdom, has voiced on various occasions an apparent anomaly. At the beginning of the Shemona Esrei prayer, one beseeches G-d, “My L-rd, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.” This is after one has already completed numerous recitations of verses and / or blessings replete with praise to the Al-Mighty. Why do we first beseech G-d to help us express our praise to Him only at this point, later on in our prayer session, when we begin the Shemona Esrei? Why do we not beseech G-d much earlier on when we first begin our prayers and blessing? The answer suggested is that we have no difficulty initially finding what to say in praise of G-d. There are many verses to be found praising the Al-Mighty. However, after we begin expressing all sorts of verses and blessings that revive our understanding, as it were, of how magnificent is G-d’s Being and His Presence and we begin to realize His unfathomable greatness, we start to find ourselves at a loss to continue to properly express our praise for Him as we attempt to personally address Him, so to speak, at the beginning of the Shemona Esrei. It is after our minds have been saturated with an abundance of understanding of G-d’s greatness that we find ourselves overwhelmed when we personally approach Him for the Shemona Esrei, and we search for a way and request His Divine assistance to do so properly, nevertheless, for the love of G-d, to proceed further to express His praise anew.
The late prominent spiritual leader of Jerusalem’s religious community, R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818 – 1898), once reported of a horrifying incident that occurred when he was young. While still a young man, he and his father R. Binyamin Diskin, formerly rabbi of Grodno, Vilkovisk and Lomza, heard a report of Torah scrolls having been burnt. Upon hearing such heart-rending news, R. Yehoshua Leib, yet in his youth, began to weep. His father, on the other hand, older and more seasoned at the time than his young son, overcome by the tragic news, as he saw it, of scrolls containing the beloved words of our beloved Father in Heaven going up in flames, immediately fainted. Saturated with love for his Creator and the Supreme Ruler’s personal manuscript, R. Binyamin Diskin found himself overwhelmed, in light of the report, to the point of fainting.
The renowned R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839 – 1933), known after his famous work Chafetz Chaim, was a man fully immersed in thought and study of the Al-Mighty and His Torah. So devoted was he to G-d and His teachings that the Chafetz Chaim would keep an accounting of his actions every day to ensure that he would not stray even for a minute from giving his full attention to His beloved Creator. One day a student found him pacing around nervously and appearing utterly distraught. Upon the student’s questioning as to what was troubling him, the Chafetz Chaim explained that there 15 minutes that passed that day that he could not account for. For the love of G-d and his complete devotion to Him, the Chafetz Chaim was overwhelmed by the thought that he may have been lax in his devotion for even 15 minutes.
As we approach the very special holiday of Shavuot, when G-d Himself presented the Children of Israel with His holy Torah, we should contemplate upon our own devotion to G-d and His Torah. How many of us can seriously claim a semblance of the devotion to G-d and His Torah described above? How much do we truly appreciate the role of G-d and His Torah in our lives? And to what extent do we express our appreciation and love for G-d and His Torah in our actions?
Every Sabbath, in synagogues world-wide, observant Jews recite a special prayer describing the great appreciation incumbent upon us towards G-d beginning with the Hebrew word nishmat: “The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, L-rd our G-d, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King. From this world to the World to Come, You are G-d, and other than You we have no king, redeemer, or savior. He who liberates, rescues and sustains, and is merciful in every time of distress and anguish, we have no king but You! … G-d of all creatures, Master of all Generations, … Who guides His world with kindness and His creatures with mercy. The L-rd neither slumbers nor sleeps. He Who rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers, Who makes the mute speak and releases the bound, Who supports the fallen and straightens the bent, to You alone we give thanks! Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue [as full of] joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips [as full of] praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds, we still could not thank You sufficiently … for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us. You redeemed us from Egypt, L-rd our G-d, and liberated us from the house of bondage. In famine You nourished us, and in plenty you sustained us. From sword you saved us; from plague you let us escape; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us. Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. Do not ever abandon us, L-rd our G-d. Therefore the organs that you set within us and the spirit and soul that you breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that you placed in our mouth, all of them shall thank and bless and praise and glorify, exalt and revere, be devoted, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of Your Name, our King. For every mouth shall offer thanks to You; every tongue shall vow allegiance to You; every knee shall bend to You; every erect spine shall prostrate itself before You; all hearts shall fear You; and all innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as it is written: ‘All my bones shall say, L-rd who is like You? You save the poor man from one who is stronger than he, the poor and destitute from the one who would rob him.’ Who is like unto You? Who is equal to You? Who can be compared to You? The great, mighty and awesome G-d, the supreme G-d, Creator of heaven and earth; we shall laud, praise and glorify You and bless Your holy Name, as it is said, ‘Of David, Bless the L-rd, my soul, and let all my innermost being bless His holy Name.’”
When we recite the above, do we realize what we are saying? Do we appreciate the intent of these words? Do we understand their meaning? How many of us who purport to be staunch followers of G-d and His Torah recognize the ramifications of what we are reciting? Do we realize the extent of our dependence on G-d and his part in our lives; how much we owe Him and how much love is due Him? Do we realize the magnitude of the Torah, dictated and presented by G-d Himself and the resultant love due its teachings? Do we understand that, for the love of G-d, we are expected to exert every limb of our body to express that love? For the love of G-d, how could we not make every effort to delve into and explore everything we can about G-d and His Torah every spare moment of every day of our lives? For the love of G-d, why would we not want to study, as much as is humanly possible, every component of G-d’s teachings – Torah, Scriptures, Talmud, Halakha etc.? For the love of G-d, would we not want to study and understand G-d’s precepts as much as possible to properly follow and obey His wishes? For the love of G-d, when we engage in prayer to G-d, how can we divert our attention from the Al-Mighty and digress into banal chatter? For the love of G-d, when praying to G-d to furnish us with our needs, how can we give Him anything less than our undivided attention? For the love of G-d, when speaking to G-d in prayer, how can we not make a serious effort to think about the words that we are reciting? For the love of G-d, how can we not take a few extra minutes necessary to clearly enunciate the words that we say during our prayers, rather than quickly mumbling the words? For the love of G-d, how can we not savor the time that we have to address G-d in prayer? For the love of G-d, when we are sitting in the synagogue waiting for the next set of prayers, how can we not search out the nearest sacred book to study or pull out a pocket sized version that one carries regularly? For the love of G-d, when we go to a doctor’s appointment, how can we not bring along a sacred book to study while waiting our turn? For the love of G-d, in appreciation of Him, how can we not cherish every word that we express to Him in prayer? For the love of G-d, in appreciation of His Torah, how can we not strive to take advantage of every possible “free” moment to explore more and more of His teachings, to absorb more and more of His teachings and to seek to understand more and more of His teachings?
In his youth, a brother-in-law of this essay’s author once approached the great Torah luminary R. Yaakov Kamenetsky to ask for a blessing from him that he become a talmid chakham (Torah scholar). R. Yaakov responded with a smile, “And would you also want to study?” The meaning of the response was not lost on this brother-in-law or on his brothers – the other brothers-in-law of this essay’s author – all of whom continually exert significant efforts and continually achieve significant heights in their study of G-d’s works. If one truly appreciates G-d and, for the love of G-d, wishes to ingest His teachings, one must perforce want to expend and invest the effort to do so. As any good relationship demands work, the investment of time, energy and thought, to nurture the relationship, our relationship with G-d demands it all the more so.
It is with very fond memories and great appreciation that this essay’s author recalls the example that his exceptional father set for him as he was growing up. The dear and revered father of this essay’s author, R. Shaul Kaniel, closely devoted to the late great rabbi of Jerusalem R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873 – 1960), raised in the hallowed environs of Jerusalem’s Old City a century ago surrounded by and replete with legendary Torah scholars, who imbibed lessons from all his teachers, would regularly demonstrate in his words as well as in his actions the need, for the love of G-d, to invest much time, great energy and boundless thought in doing what he needed to do for the sake of G-d. Despite what many would take for granted or the popular view may have been, he would not allow himself to mindlessly be dragged along to act in a way that he was not convinced was the true expression of what is expected of him by G-d. He knew that, for the love of G-d, it was demanded of him to act with total and honest conviction to explore, absorb and contemplate G-d’s teachings and, thereby, implement as best as possible what G-d expects of him.
As we enter again the glorious holiday of Shavuot marked by the One and Only G-d, Creator of the Universe, in loving kindness, bequeathing His illustrious teachings to mankind, we should make a special effort, for the love of G-d, to contemplate the ramifications of this event and the holiday that commemorates it, and, consequently, redouble our efforts to invest the time, energy and thought incumbent upon us to enjoy our relationship, as it were, with the Al-Mighty to its fullest for the sake of the ultimate betterment of each and every one of us.