As we will see in Mitzvah #433, there is an obligation for us to try to get closer to God through prayer. To help us fulfill this, our Sages established a prayer to be recited thrice-daily, corresponding to the prayers of our Forefathers. This prayer is called the Amidah (because it is recited standing); the weekday version is also called Shemoneh Esrei, the Eighteen Benedictions (although a nineteenth has since been added). Once a week for nineteen weeks, we will review the contents of the 19 blessings of “Shemoneh Esrei.”
In the fifth blessing, we ask God to assist us in returning to His service as all of us have strayed to one degree or another from our responsibilities. (The word teshuvah, commonly translated as repentance, more literally means a return.) We ask God to draw us near to Him but whether or not we return fully is up to us. People have free will and God does not coerce us to be close to Him but if we make the tiniest effort, God will carry us in the proper direction. The Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah puts it this way: “Make me an opening the size of a pinhole,” says God, “and I’ll make you an opening big enough for carriages to drive through.”
In this blessing, we refer to God as “our Father,” something only done in two of the nineteen benedictions. (The other is the blessing for forgiveness, which comes next.) That is because in these matters we require a Father’s compassion for His children. If a child goes away from home, he is always welcomed back by his parents. Similarly, if we stray from the service of our Divine Father, we need not be afraid to return as He will surely welcome us back! (The conclusion of the blessing reflects this as well, since it states not that God accepts our return to Him but that He actively desires it!)
That the prayer for help in repentance follows the praise and request for insight is quite logical. Only through our mental acuity can we discern the importance of Torah and understand in what areas we are falling short. By acquiring the gift of perception we have requested, we understand how off-base our actions are and we request God’s assistance in rectifying things.
The teshuvah we request in this blessing is a “teshuvah shelaimah” – a “complete repentance.” The reason for this distinction is because there are different levels of repentance. One can refrain from evil deeds simply because he is afraid of the consequences. That’s a level of accomplishment and it should not be sold short, but there’s a much higher type of repentance. One can do God’s will simply because he is motivated by a love of his Creator. It is this selfless height that we truly strive to attain and we ask God’s help in doing so!