“Protection, from the Heart” By Rav Jonathan Bailey
The first brakha of every amidah we say throughout the year concludes with the words, ‘blessed are you, God, the shield/protector of Avraham’. Knowing that this brakha’s introductory paragraph includes all the forefathers, why is it that only Avraham is mentioned at its conclusion? And why is it fitting to close this particular brakha by labeling God as the ‘shield/protector of Avraham’?
In this week’s parsha, after Avraham’s victorious triumph over the powerful armies of the four kings, God tells Avraham, ‘do not be afraid, Avram, I am your shield/protector, your reward is great’. From this verse we can understand why only Avraham is mentioned at the end of the ‘Forefather’ brakha: he is the only one to have received the distinctly specific Divine guarantee of a ‘shield/protector’. However, while this explains our first question, we must still ask why the mention of this protection at all? How does it fit with the brakha’s preceding words?
At first glance, the concluding words of the verse quoted above seem unnecessary: why does God mention the fact that Avraham’s ‘reward is great’? How does that affect God’s promised protection? In Pirkei Avot, chapter one, mishnah three, Antigonus Ish Socho tells us: “do not be like servants who serve their master on condition of receiving reward, rather, be like servants who serve their master not on condition of receiving reward.” Antigonus is telling us that while we should surely not serve God for its reward, it is also not good enough to serve Him neutrally; rather, we must serve him with the intention and understanding that we will specifically not receive anything for our worship. In other words, we must serve God only for the sake of serving Him, do right because He desires it, and avoid wrong because He disdains it. This is the definition of ‘service through love’: Divine worship motivated by a deep and complete dedication to God’s desires without any thought of or intention for gaining personal benefit.
God would only feel the need to mention that Avram’s ‘reward was great’ if he didn’t know or was unaware of that fact; we can infer, therefore, that Avraham never thought of his reward for leaving behind his land, neighborhood and father’s house, and following an unseen God into a vast, uncharted land on a mysterious and uncertain mission – he did it because his God commanded it, plain and simple. God now promises Avraham protection, not merely because his reward is great (i.e. he deserves it) but more importantly because he never expected any reward at all; it’s the perfect ‘service through love’ which Avraham truly exemplified and expressed that earned him his Divine security.
And if we return to the words of the first brakha of the amidah: ‘blessed are you God, our Lord and the Lord of our forefathers; the Lord of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov…Who remembers the kindness of the forefathers and brings redemption to their grandchildren, because of His name, in love’! We now perfectly understand the motivation for the words ‘blessed are you, God, the shield/protector of Avraham’ in the concluding line of this brakha – the very same laudable ‘service through love’ that gained Avraham his Divine protection is the one we praise God with in this opening paragraph of every amidah. We describe God as employing ‘love’, (the complete dedication to the other), in His redemption of the descendants of Avraham, through the merit of the very person who received his protection and redemption from danger through his expression of total dedication to God.