Part 5

Appreciation in the Midst of Tragedy

The fourth blessing is required on a Rabbinic rather than a Biblical level. As mentioned, it was instituted by the Sages of Yavneh after the destruction of the Second Temple, and after the unsuccessful Bar Kochba uprising [135 CE]. Specifically, it was instituted to express thanks that the many people who were killed at Beitar were finally able to be buried.

This seems quite strange on many levels. Surely, a blessing instituted to thank Hashem for His continued acts of kindness could have found a happier example than this one. And once again we must ask: What is the connection of this chesed, if we may call it that, to food and blessings upon food?

The Maharal explains that the lesson of this blessing is a very important one to take with us throughout the millennia of exile and destruction: As long as we are still alive, we need to thank Hashem for what we have, even if it be little – or even nothing. If we are able to still breathe, we must thank Hashem for that, and whatever other blessings we can identify, even in the midst of tremendous darkness and suffering. This spirit was exemplified by thousands of Jews during and after the Holocaust. They were thankful for a morsel of bread, for a cigarette they could use for bribes, for a pair of boots that allowed them to keep marching, and many of those who lacked even these still trusted in Hashem until their final breaths.

And so it is that after we thank Hashem for eating a meal that includes bread that we must thank Him even if it is a bread sandwich with nothing in between the slices. Conversely, even after a most sumptuous meal, we need to recall that at a more fundamental level we are still living in darkness and despair, having been exiled from Jerusalem.


The Language of the Fourth Blessing

One may ask, where in fact do we find references to the idea that we are thanking Hashem in the midst of destruction and darkness? One clue is the appearance of words such as hatzalah, y’shuah, and nechamah (rescue, salvation, and consolation). The implicit message is that we require rescue and consolation because we are in an unfortunate state.

It is further instructive to compare the sequence of words in this blessing to the one immediately before it. In the third blessing we say, “…Avinu, r’einu, zuneinu, parneseinu, v’chalkeleinu...” After we call Hashem “our Father,” we utter these demands that He stay close to us, even as a shepherd tends to his flock. In contrast, in the fourth blessing, we also say Avinu, but it is followed by: “malkeinu, adireinu, bor’einu… (our king, our strength, our creator…). These appellations reflect a distant relationship. One is not intimately close to his king or his creator. We have moved farther away from the relationship of “father” to ones that are strong but distant.

This difference in movement reflects the context of these two blessings: In the third blessing, we imagine ourselves in the setting of the Beis HaMikdash, and so we move from the relationship of Father to one that is even closer, whereas the context of the fourth blessing is that Hashem continues to provide us with good and to sustain us, even in the midst of general decline and despair. Hence, we retrogress from the relationship of Father to those of King and Creator, recognizing that He is still controlling everything, that whatever good we can point to is from Him, and that we have lost the possibility of moving even closer.

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