GUIDE TO BLESSINGS
The Talmud in Tractate Brochos is troubled by the contradictory implications of two Biblical verses. One states that "the earth and all that it contains belong to the Lord." The other states that "the earth He gave to man." Is this world God's - or is it man's?
The Talmud finds the answer in the blessings that we are commanded to recite before sampling the pleasures of this world. Before a person recites a blessing, the earth and all that it contains are indeed the Lord's; they are not yet man's. However, once a person recites a blessing, the earth and all of its bounty becomes his to use as he chooses.
This passage reflects a beautiful teaching of our tradition. We recognize the Almighty as the Creator of the Universe. And we marvel and wonder at His creation. We see all of creation - animal life, plant life, the earth itself and the heavenly bodies - as sacred and in some sense untouchable. After all, they are the direct products of God Himself.
However, God also created the human race. And He permits humanity to use His world; that is, as long as the appreciation of God's creation and of the sanctity of His handiwork are not lost in the process.
To assure that man will be able to avail himself of nature and yet retain his awe for its Creator, we are enjoined to recite the blessings contained in this booklet. By means of these blessings, we acknowledge that everything from which we derive pleasure stems from God Himself. We acknowledge in the words of a blessing that there is a certain kedusha or sanctity which holds us back in some sense from using what has been created. However, reciting the blessing, as it were, makes it permissible for us to enjoy all that the Creator has wrought.
With this teaching in mind, we can appreciate the philosophy behind the blessings. Our Sages have carefully authored blessings for all kinds of fruits and vegetables, for water and for wine, for bread and for fragrant spices; for the wonders of nature, be they of impressive beauty such as the sea or be they awesome and fearful such as thunder, lightning or even earthquakes; and even for individual experiences, such as seeing once again a place where one had experienced a personal miracle.
This, then, is the central, underlying teaching of these blessings. The earth is indeed the Lord's, as is all that is upon it. But the earth has been created for the sake of mankind. Mankind, in turn, has an obligation to recognize the source of all that it benefits from, and also has a responsibility to protect the earth and to see to it that future generations as well can appreciate God's many gifts.
There is another spiritual lesson to be learned from the wording of the blessings. Each begins with a standard formula addressing the Almighty, referred to as Shem, and acclaiming His majesty, malchus. Then follow the specific details of the blessing.
There is an interesting shift in the grammar of virtually every blessing from the opening phrase, "You are blessed," which is in the second person, to the latter part of the blessing, where God is always referred to in the third person, e.g. "who brings forth bread from the earth." How are we to understand this change of person from the intimate second person at the outset to the much more impersonal third person ending? The answer is that this shift precisely captures the experience of every human who is moved to address God. He or she begins with a sense of closeness to God, stemming from the inspiration which prompted the blessing or prayer in the first place. There is a sense of intimacy and of a direct encounter of the person with the Divine.
Typically, however, this personal relationship is a very fleeting one. As soon as one reaches out to God, one experiences the powerful contrast that exists between the human and the Divine. And immediately one loses, if only for a moment, this sense of closeness and instead, experiences the awesome distance of the Almighty.
It is thus apparent that the very wording of the blessing reflects the religious experience of all of humanity. First there is the contrast between the felt immanence of God, His proximity, reflected in the word ata, You. Immediately afterwards the sense of God's transcendence takes over, that is His distance from humanity and how far away He can sometimes seem.
Every time that a Jew utters a blessing, he does so out of a sense of gratitude which takes account of the role that God plays in his life. When he awakens in the morning he thanks God for his renewed health and vigor. Before he retires at night, he thanks God for the day's energy and requests a gentle night's sleep. When faced with a piece of bread, fruit, meat, or a drink, the gratitude he experiences is one which contains a sense of closeness to God. But that sense is always ephemeral. It cannot last and it quickly transforms into an awareness of God as the powerful Omnipotent Being whose majesty makes all humans feel puny and insignificant.
What is important, however, is that after the blessing is recited and God's transcendence is recognized, the very next blessing indicates a return to the sense of closeness. This is the experience of ratzo vashov, of running and returning, of approach and recoil, which constitutes the essence of the religious experience for the Jew, and indeed for all mankind.
We thus see that the few simple words of the blessing, which are typically recited even by the youngest of children in traditional Jewish households, contain some of the most sophisticated religious ideas and principles. Unfortunately, these ideas are sometimes lost in the concentration on the detailed halochos which determine precisely which blessing and which words should be recited upon the various components of nature.
These details can indeed be quite complex. And even a scholarly Jew may need a guide book to determine exactly the correct blessing to recite. This booklet provides such a set of guidelines for Jews of all educational backgrounds. With this in hand, you now have the opportunity to concentrate on reciting the blessings with more kavana, which means attention and intent. But kavana also means a keen awareness of the deeper religious message contained in the blessings such as we have outlined above.
All of those involved in the preparation and editing of this booklet are to be thanked - Rabbi Naftali Hoffner, z"l, who first compiled it over twenty-five years ago; David Olivestone, who extensively re-edited and completely redesigned it some years later; and Rabbi Dovid Weinberg who carefully reviewed the text for halachic accuracy and consistency. They have provided a resource which is more than just educational - it is inspirational!
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh
Weinreb is Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union