Three weeks | Tefillah

Tefilat Retzei – Does God desire us? Do we desire God?

When studying the history of the Beit hamikdash, it is sometimes hard to pray for its return. For example, during the second Beit hamikdash they started assigning the removal of the ash by lottery, because of kohanim assaulting each other while competing for the job. Even with the lottery they had to include measures to prevent cheating (Yoma 23a). Why would we want a Beit Hamikdash if it will be filled with Kohanim who fight and kill and cheat?!

Perhaps the Bracha of Retzei in the Shmoneh Esrai can provide a perspective. One of the strange things about this bracha is that during the era of Bayit Sheini it was said in the Beit hamikdash itself[1].

Imagine what it would feel like to be that Kohen, requesting the restoration of the service to the Mikdash, while performing that very service? Admitting that his service is not the service of Mikdash which he prays for?

How could such a request be truthful? Could you honestly ask God to return the service in the middle of doing it? Could we ask God to restore Tefillah, in our Tefillot? Should we?

A spiritually sensitive Kohen, who honestly sought closeness to God would realize something was wrong. With corruption, something would certainly be missing from the mikdash. Their attitude to Mikdash must have been ambivalent. Simultaneously carrying out God’s commands, while reflecting on how distant his service was from God’s desire. Of course they wouldn’t want the Mikdash destroyed – but at the same time could God be found in such a corrupt house?

At the center of the bracha we ask for the return of the service to the “Dvir” (an alternate name for the kodesh hakodashim). But why? The service is on the altar, outside, in the courtyard? Why focus on the service inside the inner sanctuary, which only happens once a year?

The name Dvir provides a clue. “Dvir” comes from the word “Davar” speech, it is the place where God communicated with humanity – specifically through Moshe. The service we seek is not the sacrifices or other physical behaviors, since those are only a means to an end, but rather service of the mind. Closeness to God is a function of knowing God and living according to that knowledge. The Dvir represents the knowledge communicated to mankind (as metaphorically represented in the two Cherubs). The Bracha is not asking for the restoration of the physical service, rather for the intellectual and ethical perfection it should bring about. That we should have service which brings us close to God’s will.

This request would strike deeply to the people of the second temple, which did not have the Aron, and instead was left with an empty rock in the center of the Kodesh hakedoshim. The body of the service was present, but the soul was missing. One could do the service as a technical fulfillment of the obligation, but the sensitive heart would be simultaneously happy and sad.

This dissonance applies to us as well.

The gap, between OUR service and God’s will also presents us with cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we follow our obligation to daven. But at the same time, we know that our Tefilla is often nothing more than whispering at a wall. We know that in spite of our words, we still have bad character traits and petty squabbles which separate us from God. That this is not just an individual problem, but rather a national one.

This is what we ask for in the beginning of the Bracha. “Hashem, please desire your nation, Israel”. While recognizing that we are not currently living in the way desired, we ask that our existence and lives should be in line with His will, specifically as expressed in our prayer and service, which should bring us close to God. We want this, but we also struggle to want it enough to change ourselves.

However, this Bracha is also hopeful. We culminate the Bracha with a request for God to return to Tzion. The purpose of the mikdash is to provide a place to encounter God; without that the place is empty. Even though during the second Beit Hamikdash the shechina was missing. Nothing about the place pointed people to a true knowledge of God or manifested the reality of His existence. Yet, it still had, and has, the potential grounded in history to become a place of shechina once again. By seeking the shechina in prayer, we guide ourselves to live in a way which could bring its return.

We conclude the Bracha with identifying God as “the one who restores His shechina to Zion”. We testify that in spite of all of the historic errors and disappointments in ourselves and other human beings, a relationship with God is possible, and the shechina can return.

[1] Brachot 12a, I am aware that some hold that when there was a Beit hamikdash the text was different, but I am working with the assumption that it was the same.

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