Friday, June 24, 2011

The Year

Re-ei ve-anyeinu and refa-einu fall into the category of what we’ve called perennial bakashos. It is therefore understandable that the formulation (nusach) of the berachos should include a ki-clause. What is, initially, not as understandable is why the following beracha, bareich aleinu, does not similarly end in a ki-clause.

Bareich aleinu is a bakasha for parnasa: material sustenance. The need is perennial, ubiquitous, and ongoing. Why shouldn’t this beracha feature a ki-clause, then? The answer, I suggest, is that the bakasha of bareich aleinu does not ask for sustenance in a general way. It reads: bareich aleinu hashem elokeinu es hashana hazos...uvareich shenoseinu kashanim hatovos. In other words, it is a bracha for a year, one year in particular: this year. It is a bakasha for the year in which we are presently standing, asking that it be good, productive, abundant, sating, and sustaining. The year is an ephemeral interval: it comes and at goes. It is fleeting. When the year has passed, we will no longer be reciting a bakasha for it. Instead we will be asking for the fruitfulness of the new year that will have superseded it. And so on and on.

In sum, confined to one specific year, the beracha is particular rather than general in its reach. I think that substantially the same logic applies to al hatzadikim and velamalshinim. In the former, mention is made of peleitas sofereihem. In the Artscroll, this is rendered “on the remnant of their scholars.” (I don’t have a Birnbaum.) To speak of a remnant is to make specific reference to a given historical era. In this era, there were such remnants. In praying for its tzadikim, an individual community appeals for the special protection of, first and foremost, its leadership, who stand at the forefront and provide direction. The bakasha then proceeds to single out other well circumscribed groups – the elders of the community, the newly converted – for additional safekeeping. By dividing the population and isolating certain of its segments, the signon – tenor – of the bakasha makes it plain that its focus is trained, not on people in general nor on the entire march of history, but rather on the community momentarily enunciating the prayer.

I would venture the speculation that the Yakum Purkan and Mi Shebeirach tefilos that were instituted much later than the Shemoneh Esrei, and that we recite on Shabbos before Musaf for the well being of the congregation: its rabanim, teachers, community leaders, askanim, students, and congregation-members and their families – that it was inspired by the thrust of the bakasha of al hatzadikim that we recite in the Shemoneh Esrei.  If so, then these Shabbos prayers reveal how the later generation conceived the intention behind the bakasha of al hatzadikim. It shows that they viewed it as having a localized community orientation.

Comparable considerations apply to velamalshinim, which was only later introduced in response to the exigencies of the particular period. It singles out a certain segment of the population for doom and seeks amelioration from the travails plaguing a given moment in history. It does not bear a universal mien. It has no ki-clause.


Al hatzadikim is a perplexing beracha. Why do we single out tzadikim from among all other people for special consideration? Don’t we all want and need protection? Also, by the time we’ve gone through the entire beracha, just about everyone has been mentioned (for we say ve-al geirei hatzedek ve-aleinu and, also, vesim chelkeinu imahem). So what is the point of going about it piecemeal, starting from the tzadikim, and working one’s way downstream? Further, why is the remnant of their scribes singled out for special mention? And who, in our day, are these people: the remnant of their scribes? Are there any? B”H our Torah community is growing by leaps and bounds; it is not at all obvious to me that there are any remnants to speak of? Perhaps in earlier generations (perhaps in the generation recently gone by) – but now?! If this is a general, ever-applicable beracha, and if it pertains to a constant, ongoing need, why make reference to peleitim whose presence or absence varies with historical contingencies? Similarly, why do geirim need to be singled out for special mention? Significantly, why do we ask that those who trust in Hashem be rewarded? Keviyachol Hashem is known to reward everyone for every good thing performed? Why, further, do we ask that our lot be cast with theirs – as if to say we ourselves fall short in the area of bitachon (trust in G-d) and need, for favorable treatment, to be tagged along with those who are strong? Paradoxically, we follow up by declaring ki becha batachnu! If this is a general bakasha, all these things seem perplexing.

But if my suggestion is in the right, then, when we recite this beracha, we are representing ourselves and speaking in behalf of our own community (however large or small it be looked at as being). We single out special segments of the community because of our deference to them or because of a special interest in their welfare. It is as if we owe them special recognition, and we want to show that we are solicitous of these people’s well being. The beracha was instituted with an era in which there were peleitim in mind. But we adhere to the original formulation, regardless of era. And because we don’t want to be too bigoted or favoritistic, we seek to be inclusive and say: Amply reward all who truly trust in Your Name. But we are concerned about our entire community, not just isolated segments; so want to be even more inclusionary. Therefore we add: Cast our lot with theirs, because we trust in You.       

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