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Hear Our Voice

We fall into the arms of the One Who understands us best



hich brachah in the Shemoneh Esreh do you connect with most? I have a hunch that it’s the brachah of “Shema Koleinu,” the last of our tefillah’s birchos bakashah.

Our focus on specific brachos in the supplicatory section of Shemoneh Esreh is generally dictated by our current life’s circumstances. Someone is sick? Cue the kavanah in “Refaeinu.” Just had an upsetting lapse in observance? “Slach Lanu” is this week’s focus. Suffering a financial reversal? Until things improve, “Bareich Aleinu” is the highlight.

Yet despite our tendency to focus on the brachos that embody our present state of affairs, there’s a universal reaction we share upon reaching the brachah of “Shema Koleinu,” akin to falling helpless into the arms of Someone Who understands us more than we even understand ourself.

Shema Koleinu is, at once, the “summing up” brachah for all the birchos bakashah that preceded it, and a plea for Hashem to accept everything we’ve requested of Him until now. It’s also one of the two places in the Shemoneh Esreh where we’re permitted to insert a tefillah in our own words. The Shulchan Aruch (119:1) teaches, “in ‘shomeia tefillah’ one may request all his needs, for it comprises all other [previous] requests.”

The Essence of Tefillah

Indeed, Shema Koleinu is invested with a unique capability that eludes all other birchos bakashah, and the very language of the brachah suggests its unusual role. In contrast to all other bakashos, Shema Koleinu employs the language of “tefillah”: “v’kabel b’rachamim u’veratzon es tefillaseinu,” “ki Kel shomeia tefillah v’sachanun,” “baruch Atah, Hashem, shomeia tefillah.

What is the “tefillah” spoken of here, and how does it demonstrate the function of our brachah?

Rav Chaim Friedlander explains that tefillah is “realizing that a person has absolutely nothing from himself, everything he has is only a result of what Hashem has given him.” When a person recognizes that his abilities — physical, emotional, cognitive, mental, and even spiritual — are solely from Hashem, he reflexively turns to Him in an act of self-abnegation, demonstrating his utter reliance on Him.

The Maharal, in questioning the role of avodah in tefillah, relies on this illustration as well. Avodah is a conjugation of the word eved, a slave, whose entire existence is mandated by the will of his master. Tefillah is the act of requesting every one of our needs from Hashem, and affirms the utter reliance we have on Him, just as an eved is entirely reliant on the will of his master. Thus tefillah is, in essence, giving over oneself to Hashem.

Perhaps this explains why Shema Koleinu is the juncture in Shemoneh Esreh when we’re encouraged to make our own requests. With its focus on the word tefillah and the reliance on Hashem that this suggests, Shema Koleinu epitomizes the influence He has on us, and is the perfect venue to make requests affecting every aspect of existence.

Kol vs. Dibbur

The opening declaration of the brachah Shema Koleinu employs a curious choice of words. Why do we ask for our kol, voice, to be heard, as opposed to our dibbur, our words? Shema dibbureinu may be a more appropriate phrase for our brachah.

What’s the difference between kol and dibbur?

Dibbur are clear, comprehensible utterances, while kol is an ambigous cry,” says the Sifsei Chaim. Where dibbur communicates something precise and unequivocal, kol is a primal, unspecified cry for help.

The Gra (Avnei Eliyahu) adds another dimension to the difference. Where dibbur can be explained, understood, and is of sound reason, kol is absent of logic, explanation, and definitive clarity. It is sound without the requisite coordinates to give it logical form and function.

Rav Chaim Friedlander notes that the Torah specifically uses the word kol as opposed to dibbur in some of the seminal events in our history. When Hashem validates the perspective of Sarah Imeinu to Avraham Avinu regarding Yishmael, He says: “All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice — shema b’kolah” (Bereishis 21:12).

According to Chazal, heeding Sarah’s wish to expel Yishmael from their home was one of the greatest tests in Avraham’s life. In fact, the Torah chronicles his ambivalence in doing so: “And this matter was bad in Avraham’s eyes regarding his son” (ibid. 21:11). However, Hashem insisted that he follow Sarah’s directives, her kol, even though to Avraham, her words weren’t dibbur, understandable, rather expressions of kol, inscrutable, incomprehensible.

When Hashem informs Yitzchak Avinu of the reward He wishes to bestow on him, He says, “Because Avraham heeded my kol, and didn’t doubt Me” (ibid. 26:5). Mefarshim reference Avraham’s exceptional feats of emunah when he encountered tests like sacrificing the son who was to succeed him, or leaving his home only to encounter a vicious famine. Here, Avraham followed kol Hashem, instructions that seemed to preclude rational thought and understanding.

Yaakov Avinu was also enjoined to follow kol rather than dibbur when his mother, Rivkah Imeinu, instructed him, “And now my son, heed my kol in that which I command you” (ibid. 27:8). Here, Rivkah directed her son Yaakov to trick his father, an act that was confounding, an impossibly incomprehensible directive of kol to a man who was hallmarked by his unswerving allegiance to the trait of emes, truth.

In these acts of heeding inexplicable kol rather than logical dibbur, our Avos garnered for us the merit of sounding our kol tefillah to Hashem, and earned us the right to “Shema Koleinu, Hashem Elokeinu.” Even when our requests aren’t deserved, warranted, or earned, we rely on the kol Avos that continues to resonate across the millennia.

Far from a simple “sum up” of our prior requests, Shema Koleinu is Divine permission to ask for the things that are incomprehensible according to a linear system of merit and reward. It’s the ability to ask when we feel we have no right, no entrance point, no leg to stand on. It’s the most auspicious place to pour out our pain in our own words, words that may be garbled with tears and muddled with sobbing, words that make no sense, because they’re simply a cacophony of anguished sorrow, a symphony of suffering. It’s our birthright gifted across the years from the titans of faith, the Avos.

It’s kol.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 896)

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