- Who God is
- Particular aspect (Baruch atah ... elokei yaakov)
- Universal aspect (Hael hagadol ... El elyon)
- What God does
- Universal aspect (Gomel chasadim ... koneh hakol)
- Particular aspect (Zocher chasdei ... beahava)
- Conclusion (Melech ozer ... magen avraham)
I will now try to explain each line individually, as well as to weave in an overall analysis of what the bracha is about.
1a. Who God is (particular)
Blessed are you, Hashem, our God and God of our ancestors,
This opening differs from most other blessings in that "King of the universe" is replaced by "God of our ancestors". But this is easily explained. When eating food, for example, our blessing recognizes the impersonal "natural" God who created the food along with the rest of the world. When praying, this impersonal manifestation of God is less relevant. What matters is the personal/national aspect of God with which you/we can form a relationship. So we mention "God of our ancestors" - it was our ancestors' covenant that allows us to approach God with this prayer.
The entire phrase "Hashem, God of (your) ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Yaakov" comes from Shemot 3:15. Moshe asks what God's "name" is - i.e. how God is to to be addressed - and this is the answer.
God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Yaakov,
This line explains the previous line, telling us WHICH covenants allow us to approach God.
The Matriarchs are not included because they did not make formal covenants with God in the way the Patriarchs did. (Sarah and Rivkah had interesting quasi-covenantal experiences, but they clearly were not formal in the way that their husbands' were.)
You might wonder why these covenants are mentioned, but not the seemingly more important covenant at Sinai. I can think of three possible explanations:
1) These covenants established a relationship with God, while the covenant at Sinai only strengthened an existing relationship.
(If that's the case, then why are Yitzchak and Yaakov mentioned? Didn't Avraham's covenant establish a relationship and Yitzchak and Yaakov only confirm it? Perhaps Yitzchak and Yaakov could have gone the way of Yishmael and Esav, abandoning their parents' covenant without negative consequences. Thus they too, and not just Avraham, were in the position of establishing and not confirming a covenant. Also, Avraham's covenant may have implicitly included Yitzchak, and thus is considered Yitzchak's covenant too, while Yaakov's covenant might be qualitatively different from those preceding it in that it included all of Yaakov's descendants.)
2) The covenants with the Patriarchs established the kind of emotional relationship which is necessary for prayer, while the covenant at Sinai only established a system of laws and commandments and rewards and punishments, none of which are directly related to prayer.
3) Sinai IS implicitly mentioned: this is part of the "burning bush" story which takes place at Sinai, and God says in 3:12 than "when you take the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain".
1b. Who God is (universal)
Great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God,
This line segues from God's particular relationship with us to His general relationship with humanity, by pointing out the limits of the particular relationship.
"Great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God" is a direct quote from the Torah which is best understood in its original context. Moshe is explaining why the Jews should obey God:
"Behold, to Hashem your God belongs the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, and all that is in it. But Hashem delighted in your ancestors to love them, and He chose their seed after them - you - from all peoples, as it is this day. So circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. For Hashem your God - He is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, who neither recognizes individuals nor takes bribes...." (Devarim 10:14-17)
To summarize, God established a special relationship with the Jewish people. You might think that due to this relationship, God is willing to show favoritism to us. But, the Torah says, this is incorrect. The "great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God" demands a standard of behavior from us which is at least as high as for the rest of humanity. Despite "choosing our seed", God will not "recognize individuals nor take bribes". Therefore, we have to carefully follow the Torah.
The exact same correction occurs in the prayer. We just mentioned our special, particular relationship with God. But if we just had a fuzzy-wuzzy patron God who would give us whatever we wanted automatically, what point would there really be to prayer? It's like the 16-year-old whose parents always give him the car keys, and who feels no need ever to obey or even talk to them. If the parents were to set standards for giving him the keys, then he'd be forced to take them more seriously. If God were to indulge Israel no matter what we do, then we would almost certainly drift away and fail to accomplish the task God has assigned for us.
This name of God ("El Elyon") is mentioned just twice in Tanach. Once is Tehillim 78:35, where it is next to two other names of God. The multiple names are apparently used simply for poetic variety, so I don't ascribe too much importance to this occurrence.
The more important occurrence is in Breishit 14:18-22. There the priest Malchitzedek says to Avraham (named Avram at that point): "Blessed be Avram to El Elyon, and blessed be El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth." Avraham does not immediately answer. But two verses later, when he is invited to take spoils from the recent battle, he replies "I will have lifted my hand against Hashem El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth, if I take any of your possessions, whether a thread or a shoelace..."
Like Malchitzedek, Avraham recognizes "El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth" as the unique and omnipotent God. But Avraham adds in an extra name of God - "Hashem". It's the same God, but the name Hashem is specific to the Jewish people. Both aspects are important: the national and the universal. But Malchitzedek can only mention the universal aspect, while Avraham combines the two.
So what is this name doing here? I think it exemplifies what is implied in the previous phrase. Despite our special relationship with God, God is concerned with the universal as well. We began the prayer by focusing on the special relationship, which is after all what allows us to pray as we do. But this should not lead us to a distorted overall picture of God which ignores the universal aspects.
2a. What God does (universal)
At this point we have finished discussing who God "is", in both the particular and universal senses, and we move on to examples of what God "does". This is the midpoint of the prayer.
On Friday night after the Maariv Shemoneh Esreh, we say a truncated version of the first bracha which ends exactly here (it then adds the words "koneh shamayim vaaretz" which are simply the continuation of the "el elyon" verse). Apparently, the truncated version concerns itself with "who God is" but not with "what God does", causing the second half of the bracha to be omitted. (Why is this? Perhaps "what God does" is just evidence which helps prove "who God is", and as in the ensuing "magen avot" prayer, this bracha is simply stripped of peripheral elements to the maximum extent possible.)
The "what God does" section contains two examples: creation and redemption. In additional to the universal/particular division that I have proposed, these two examples may be chosen to represent the beginning and end of history, and by extension, also everything in between.
Who bestows good kindnesses, and creates all,
On this line, the "kindnesses" are those bestowed on us by God. The next words, "and creates all", are probably an explanation of these kindnesses. That said, it's not totally clear exactly what kindnesses are being referred to. Perhaps the very fact that the world exists is a kindness by God. Or perhaps, the phrase "and creates all" is meant to cover the smaller kindnesses which God continually performs, but which are too numerous to be listed individually.
God's kindnesses here are referred to as "good kindnesses", but in the next line we simply have "kindnesses". I think that "good" here indicates the effect, not the intention, of the gesture. Human kindness to God is a nice gesture, but it doesn't actually do anything for God, because God doesn't need anything done for Him. Whereas God's kindnesses to us are very necessary and fill our vital needs; thus they are considered "good".
2b. What God does (particular)
And recalls the kindnesses of the Patriarchs, and brings a redeemer to their descendants,
I translated "zocher" as "recalls" and not "remembers". Not only would there be a theological problem if God were to remember or forget, but the word "zocher" in Tanach consistently refers to action, not simply to a state of mind. (Its meaning is almost identical to that of the word "poked".) "Remember", which is entirely mental, is the wrong translation and "recall", which can imply action, is better.
The way I have divided the lines, this line is structurally similar to the previous line. Each line consists of two phrases, and the first phrase in each mentions "kindnesses". The second phrase on each line is apparently either an explanation or the result of the previously mentioned "kindnesses".
In the previous (universal) line we had God doing kindness for human beings; here some of the human beings reciprocate. The human "kindness" here can be identified as the Patriarchs' acceptance of a covenant with, and thus loyalty to God (as was mentioned at the beginning of the blessing).
Despite the parallel between the Patriarchs' and God's kindness, the overall focus remains solely on God. The Patriarchs' "kindness" is mentioned only as secondary to God's response to it. This indicates the asymmetry between us and God. There is a tendency to see God and the Jewish people as counterparts to each other (as in "ani ledodi vedodi li"). But in fact God is transcendent and all-powerful, and we are not, and there cannot really be any equitable comparison between the two.
For the sake of His name, with love.
There is a universal element even in an event as "particular" as the salvation of the Jewish people. The "particular" reason for redemption is that God "loves" the Jewish people, which I think must be taken to mean that God rewards us for good deeds by us or our ancestors. The equally valid "universal" reason is that God intends to spread awareness of Him throughout the world, through the "kiddush hashem" that Israel is prominent and successful and worth taking note of.
The prophets Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel lived at about the same time and both talked extensively about redemption. But the paths to redemption they outlined were very different. For Yirmiyahu, repentance and a high moral standard would lead God to return to us, to "love" us. For Yechezkel, though, God would be forced to redeem us in order to protect His "reputation", even in the absence of good deeds. These two approaches seem to be reflected in the gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) which says that redemption will come when the Jewish people is either entirely good or entirely evil.
Thus, we describe the redemption both in universal terms ("for the sake of His name", i.e. to promote His worldwide reputation and profile) and particular terms ("with love"). Perhaps we mention both terms because we don't know in which of the two ways redemption will come. Or, more likely, because it will in fact come through a combination of both ways.
There is an interesting parallel in Moshe's first prayer after the Golden Calf sin. There Moshe asks God not to destroy the Jewish people for two reasons - so that Egypt not mock the Exodus, and because of the covenant with the Patriarchs. These two reasons are identical to those which we suggested will eventually bring about redemption.
King who helps, saves, and guards. Blessed are you, guard of Avraham.
I think that the last few words before "Blessed" have no independent significance. Rather, they form the "me'ein hachatimah" (essence of the conclusion) which must appear in a bracha immediately before its conclusion.
The phrase "guard of Avraham" paraphrases Breishit 15:1. There Avraham has just successfully raided the alliance of four kings and rescued Lot. God comes to reassure him (he's probably worried about retribution), saying: "Do not fear, Avram; I am your guard; your reward is very great." God's promise to Avraham, "I am your guard", is rephrased to form the conclusion to the bracha.
In the Torah, this verse introduces the famous passage of Brit Bein Habetarim - Covenant Between the Pieces - in which God promised to create a great people from Avraham's descendants, who will inherit the (future) land of Israel. This is an absolutely brilliant allusion with which to end the bracha. First of all, Brit Bein Habetarim was the first time Avraham (or any Jew) is recorded as having spoken to God. Thus it is a perfect prototype for us as we begin Shemonei Esrei, which is our chance to speak to God. Secondly, reference to Brit Bein Habetarim returns us to the content of the bracha - specifically to the covenant and to redemption, which are the subjects of the two "particular" lines of the bracha. The correspondence is so exact that one suspects that the entire bracha was planned around this extraordinarily evocative phrase, "magen avraham".
There seems to be no reference to the "universal" aspects of God in this conclusion. It therefore seems that the "real" purpose of the bracha is to initiate the particular, committed, loving relationship between God and the Jewish people who are praying to Him. At the same time, even as we personally are focusing on the "particular" aspect, we must remember that the "universal" aspect is just as real. It forms the center of our bracha, and in the Torah it is introduced first. It therefore seems to be just as fundamental as the particular aspect, even though it is not the object of our attention while praying.