Sunday, June 19, 2011

Form and Content

In the Shemoneh Esrei, we recite eighteen berachos. The prayer in its totality is divided into three parts. The first, consisting of the first three berachos, enunciates praises of G-d. The last, consisting again of three berachos, expresses thanks to G-d. In between are sandwiched what were originally twelve but then grew into thirteen berachos of bakasha – supplication. In these latter, we beseech G-d for the fulfillment of our various needs, each such need being attended to in one of these berachos.

In what follows, I will focus on the middle berachos, those of supplication (bakasha). I want to suggest that the format in which these bakashos are encased follows one of two different patterns. One format expresses bakasha from beginning to end. (My discussion pertains to the part of a beracha – or bakasha – that precedes the chasima, beginning in baruch ata.) Its content is fully occupied in bakasha per se. The other, though occupied preponderantly in bakasha, adds something to the bakasha before closing. What it adds is what, formally speaking, I will call a ki-clause. As I understand it, the function of a ki-clause is, if you will, to rationalize the baracha. It is to provide a justification for asking for whatever it is that we ask in that beracha. It seems to embrace the presumption that, unless we can justify asking for something, we are not well positioned to ask for it. In this sense, a ki-clause lends external support to the bakasha. It empowers us to make it, if you will.

What I have been saying can best be brought out by illustration. The second of the berachos of bakasha is hashiveinu. Its formulation (nusach) reads as follows: hashiveinu avinu lesorasecha vekareveinu malkeinu la-avodasecha vehachazireinu bishuva sheleima lefanecha. These words exhaust the content of the bakasha, running all the way to the beracha’s chasima. It will be noticed that nothing is said that does not bespeak bakasha per se.

This, then, illustrates a bakasha formulated according to the first pattern. Now consider the very next bakasha. It reads thus: selach lanu avinu ki chatanu mechal lano malkeinu ki fashanu ki mochel vesole-ach ohta. We observe that the bulk of the bakasha is indeed devoted to expressing our request to G-d for forgiveness. However, before it draws to a close, it appears to divert from its thrust and invokes an extraneous statement, specifically: ki mochel vesole-ach ata. These appear to be words of rationale or justification. It is as if we were saying: “Why, Kiveyachol, grant us forgiveness?” “Do it because You are a forgiving and pardoning King.”

Now, go through all the berachos of bakasha, and you will find that they fall into either one these patterns: either they exhibit a ki-clause or they do not (and that those that do not do nothing other than articulate the bakasha). The question is, therefore, why this divergence of formulation? Why the absence of thoroughgoing consistency in formulation? Why should we need to justify our request in this manner? Why couldn’t we make it without resorting to such justification? What, further, is the nature of the justification we offer? And if indeed a justification is called for, why then not append it to each and every request we make throughout the entire range of bakashos? Why are some singled out for this sort of supplementation, with the other ones remaining unaffected at all? In other words, what principle of differentiation is operative here?

(Please stay tuned for the next post, bs”d.)

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