Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ashrei Teaches us about our Mission (part 2): Manifesting the Mission

Did you ever wonder where the praises of the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh come from? Did the rabbis make them up? How did they know when to stop? The Talmud in Berachot 33b tells the following story: A man approached the lectern and began to compose his own praise of God in the repetition of the Amidah prayer. He started with the standard “Lord who is great, heroic, awe-inspiring,” but then continued with “mighty, powerful, fearful, strong, courageous, revered…” As the individual ran out of praises, Rav Chanina rebuked him, stating, “Have you concluded your praising of your Master? Rather only the verses which Moshe spoke are we permitted to recite...". In this vein we would expect the praises in the first blessing to be an exact quote of Moshe in the Torah. And indeed the first four words do just that--“Lord who is great, heroic, awe-inspiring,” but then one extra phrase is presented, el elyon.
Moshe was not the originator of this term we use to describe God, in fact no Jew did! It is a quote from a non-Jew.
Can you imagine that we would have to resort to quoting non-Jews in our own Shemoneh Esreh, in the first blessing no less? Yet, that is exactly what happens and I think for a very good reason.
The author of this phrase is Makli-Tzedek, king of Shalem, who, after seeing Avram's actions in the battle of the four kings against the five, was so inspired with his behaviour that he brought out bread and wine and made a blessing to the "el elyon, owner of the heavens and earth".
Why would the rabbis use this appellation to describe an attribute of God in our own prayers? The answer, I think, stems from the previous blog and the understanding that when Avram sanctifies the name of God and spreads it to the point that other nations not only acknowledge Him but praise Him and bless His name--then Avram is fulfilling his mission and the world became a bit more in tune with God.
The Torah recognized and therefore recorded this profound event as a reminder of how Avram fulfilled his mission and charged us to walk in his footsteps and attempt to spread the name of God to more and more nations of the world.
Yitro is the next personality who is influenced by Moshe, by God and by the children of Israel. Ignoring the question of whether he converted or not, the mere fact that he understood the greatness of God from the actions of the exodus, the splitting of the sea, but also the battle with Amalek, shows us that even in wartime and against our enemies, we can impact the minds of the righteous and ultimately of all the nations of the world.
I think this is the mission which is presented in psalm 145--Ashrei. It is about finding your relationship with God and then embarking on a mission to spread God consciousness throughout the world so that other nations will join you in praise and in blessing.