Linda Hoffenberg (© 2013 Linda Hoffenberg; reproduced here with permission)
Today I share a dvar Tefillah on a topic that I keep returning to over and over – blessings, also known as brachot.
About six years ago I gave a dvar tefilla on this topic and quoted Heschel as saying, “A blessing is an expression of radical amazement at the spectacular world we live in.”
To expand on that, I want to share insights from Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, who is a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis.
He teaches that while other religions of antiquity promoted abstention and denying the body of pleasure, Judaism has always believed that the human being is defined by the important interaction of body and soul. Prof. Kimmelman compares body and soul to computer hardware and software – one can’t work without the other.
This appreciation for the importance of both body and soul can be seen by two prayers placed close together in the first pages of the siddur. Turn to page 6, where it says “We are grateful for the gift of our body.” Many of you are familiar with this amazing prayer typically recited after using the bathroom. Rather than being repulsed by the functions of the body, Judaism gives us a blessing – words praising God for the ingenious creation that is the human body! The Jewish view is that in taking care of that body so it can function well, you are doing a divine service.
On the next page, page 8, at the bottom we read “We are grateful for the gift of our soul”
Elhoai – neshama shenatata bi tehora hi – God! The soul that you have given me is pure. It’s in mint condition! And it is extremely valuable.
We are tasked with elevating the body so it can interact with the soul, and the key technique to do that is through the saying of blessings.
So let’s look at the first six words of the familiar blessing formula:
Baruch – from the word “berech” meaning knee (we bend the knee)
Ata – YOU
In two words I have made a connection between me and God.
Next two words – Adonai Elohaynu –
Now we’ve moved past the intimate me/God to the plural Elohaynu – OUR God
Next two words – Melech HaOlam –
And now we’ve moved into the realm of the whole world – God as Ruler of the world.
The blessing moves in just six words from me and God / us and God / to the whole world and God.
These six words give what follows a framework and a context. It’s something you can do as an individual, but there’s a recognition that the blessing you are about to say connects to and impacts the entire world.
Those six words do not appear in the Tanach. They first appear in the Talmud and therefore we know this blessing formula was created after the destruction of the Temple. What the rabbis did here was ingenious. They created a formula
Baruch ata – Adonai elocheynu – Melech ha’olam
made up of six words that starts with the self and ends with the whole world. Through those six words I have affirmed that God fills the universe
Now we know that in ancient Judaism you went to the Temple to try to access the Divine.
Prof. Kimelman suggests that to try to understand the transition from Temple Judaism to rabbinic Judaism we could think about the Temple as a bottle of good perfume. If you’re close to the bottle you can smell the perfume but if you’re far away you can’t. However if you shatter the bottle of perfume on the floor – the fragrance is not contained and it spreads everywhere.
Of course in this example the perfume is God’s holiness and the bottle is the Temple. And when the Temple was destroyed God’s holiness was no longer concentrated there but was spread throughout the universe.
By saying a blessing we try to recognize that divine presence in our universe.
How can we recognize it? Can we see that divine presence?
Well Professor Kimelman suggests we think about a space – like this room - filled with hundreds of cell phone, TV and radio waves. Can you see them? No. And if you didn’t have a cell phone, a radio or a TV you wouldn’t know that these waves exist.
But if you do have one of these devices, you believe these things you can’t see actually exist even though you can’t see them.
The comparison is this - Saying a blessing makes you sufficiently sensitive to the element of divinity in the universe as you try to absorb it. The blessing makes you aware of divinity like the radio makes you aware of the radio waves.
The blessings focus on pleasure which come to us through the senses.
Turn to page 708 and see all the blessings we have that involve seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching.
For example – seeing a rainbow, smelling fragrant fruit, hearing thunder, touching new clothes.
Let’s turn back to the beginning of the siddur on page 10 and look at the set of blessings we said this morning known as Birkhot HaShachar, ”the blessings of dawn.”
About these blessings, Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes:
The simple acts of waking up, opening our eyes, rising, dressing and preparing to meet a new day are transformed into a recognition of God’s gift of life to us. No one should take life for granted. Each new day is a divine gift.
These blessings were formalized as part of the preliminary service in order to make certain that they would be recited, but it must be admitted that they are much more meaningful when attached to the specific actions of rising, dressing, etc.
Birkhot HaShachar invokes the senses as we become aware of the miracles of the new day. Imagine saying these upon waking each day:
The rooster – perhaps the modern equivalent is the alarm clock. Saying this blessing is recognition that we and the rooster have the ability to respond to the fact that another day has begun.
Made me in God’s image – - An awareness of my own existence and that I am made in the image of God
Made me a Jew
Made me free - I now have the ability to make decisions about my day
Gives sight to the blind – imagine a day waking up with no sight?
Clothes the naked – or living without the warmth and protection of clothing
Releases the bound - Leaving the partial paralysis our bodies experience while sleeping.
Raises the bent – getting out of bed and standing up straight
Creates the heaven and the earth - and the planet that supports our existence
Provides for all my needs – therefore providing for all my needs
Guides us on our path – literally guiding my footsteps, a recognition of the journey that lies ahead each day
Strengthens the people Israel with courage – the courage to be who you are
Who crowns the people Israel with glory – could be putting on a kipah
Who restores vigor to the weary – strength we need for what this new day will bring
Now the sense I haven’t mentioned yet is taste, which of course connects to so many blessings we say before and after eating.
Prof. Kimelman speaks about the blessing we say before sitting down to a table filled with food.
Baruch ata adonai elohyenu melech haolam Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav Al n’tialit yadaim
The phrase asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav ["who commands us with the mitzvah" - washing the hands, in this case - ed.] adds the concept that the mitzvot are vehicles of sanctification. But the commandment to say this blessing before a meal is not in the Tanach.
So what’s the concept here?
The rabbis were fleshing out the ideology that the Jews are a kingdom of priests. Priests in the Temple would wash before approaching the altar. When you approach the table, it functions like an altar. As long as the altar was around it was used to atone for the sins of the people through sacrifice.
Now the table atones and the food on the table is equivalent to the sacrifice on the altar. In the Talmud we learn that we say blessings before and after eating because the ancient sacrifices had blessings before and after.
There’s one more direct connection between our table and the altar. We dip our bread in salt, because the sacrifices were dipped in salt, which was seen as an eternal preservative and in that way a symbol of the eternal covenant between God and Am Yisrael.
You are like a priest approaching the altar when you approach the table. Priesthood was an exclusive group and sacrifices were done only at the altar. But with the destruction of the physical Temple, its virtual walls have been expanded to include all of Am Yisrael as a mamlechet kohanim, goi kadosh.
We all are commanded to act as priests each time we approach a table, and the table can be anywhere.
What I’ve tried to share with you today is an appreciation for the fact that not only are “Blessings an expression of radical amazement at the spectacular world we live in” but they are also a framework for taking our physical needs seriously and making them sacred.