August 15th-16th, 2003
18 Av, 5763
The Hebrew words most universally known by Jewish people (apart, perhaps,
from Shema Yisrael…) are surely, "Baruch Atah, Hashem," the traditional
opening of a blessing said before eating food or performing a commandment.
And just about everyone can skillfully rattle off the English translation,
"Blessed are You, O Lord," in no time flat. (Possible conclusion: Hebrew
school was not a total waste of time after all!) The problem comes,
however, when we push a bit further, and ask someone (and that could
include ourselves): "Very well, but what do those words really signify?
What exactly are we saying by declaring that G-d is blessed?"
It’s not a new question. One great teacher who raised it, for example, was
the author of the classic exposition of the biblical commandments, Sefer
HaChinuch [wonderfully translated in a multi-volume set published by
Feldheim, The Book of Mitzvah Education]. Even if we can assume that the
average Hebrew school education was a good bit better in
13th-century Barcelona (where he lived) than now, still people are
people--and we all tend to operate mechanically, and therefore, need some
(constant and ceaseless) prodding to think more deeply about what we say
It is in his discussion of this week’s parsha of Eikev that he poses the
question. For it is here that we are taught the mitzvah to bless G-d after
eating bread (the commandment of Birkas Ha’Mazon, or Grace After
Meals)--the prototype for the extensive system of blessings that our great
Sages later instituted (i.e., before we eat food, perform a commandment,
etc.). As the Torah states: "You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and
bless Hashem, your G-d, for the good land that He gave you." (8, 10)
To paraphrase the question of the Sefer HaChinuch: Since our holy
tradition teaches that G-d is the Source of all goodness, wisdom, ability
and blessing (He is perfect and complete), how can we ADD anything
whatsoever by our act of blessing? Are we presuming to bestow benediction
on the Source of all benediction?
What exactly is going on here? (Kind of pays to stop and think about these
very obvious things sometimes.)
There are many ways to go about answering this fundamental question, and
all of them lead us into very deep (and beautiful) waters. The author of
the Sefer HaChinuch himself declares: "…it is not my thought that my
intelligence will grasp even as much as a drop in the ocean of the truth
of the subject." (And he certainly had a better Hebrew school education
than I did!)
Here are at least a few ideas on the subject that may make our next Baruch
Atah Hashem more meaningful.
First, we are not adding anything to Hashem by blessing Him, not
demonstrating our power. Rather, we are acknowledging Him as the Source of
all blessing in general, and of the particular nourishment (or pleasure)
we are about to enjoy at the moment. We are reminding ourselves, if you
will, that any good we experience in this world connects back to the
Source of all good, G-d Himself. Even if there are many "intermediaries"
who have helped to bring us this bread--and it is surely part of our task
as Jews to feel gratitude for those intermediaries, too--, the ultimate
Benefactor (on whom all those intermediaries themselves depend) is G-d
The fact that our ancestors were miraculously sustained in the Wilderness
by manna, the "bread from Heaven," was meant to impress on us for all time
that G-d Himself (and not "natural processes," disconnected from any
transcendent Source) is the One Who feeds and sustains us.
This is part of what Moshe meant when he told the Jewish people (also in
this parsha): "He [G-d] afflicted you and let you hunger, then He fed you
the manna that you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, in order
to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, but rather from
all that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live." Bread is not
ALONE, is not "on its own," in having its power to sustain us. It has
life-giving power only because it is connected to the Source of all life,
G-d, Who gives the bread that power ("with His mouth"), and Who allows it
to find its way to our table. We acknowledge this by saying, "Blessed are
You," after we partake of the bread (and all of those scrumptious
fixings): You, Hashem, are the Source of this blessing.
But there’s more to a blessing as well, as the Sefer HaChinuch explains.
In addition to "reminding ourselves" of the Source of all good, we are
also making ourselves worthy of being recipients of that good that G-d
wants to give! For, in truth, the good we enjoy in this world does not
"inherently" belong to us (not a single breath), which is why the Talmud
states that to partake of a pleasure without acknowledging its Source is a
form of "stealing!"
"Out of this good arousal of our spirit, and the focusing of our thought
to gratefully acknowledge to Him that all good favors are contained in
Him and He rules over them to send them wherever He wishes, we merit
through this good deed to draw [down] of His blessing upon us."
[Sefer HaChinuch: Volume IV, p. 313]
Our act of blessing (the focusing of our thoughts onto G-d, and the verbal
expression of our acknowledgment to Him) elevates us to be truly deserving
of G-d’s blessing! We make ourselves fit vessels to receive the true Good
He wants to bestow…which is really the knowledge of Him, and closeness to
Him! The food, then, has become more than just physical nourishment,
sustaining the body: it has served to bring me closer to Him, and thereby
brought greater illumination to my soul.
Finally (for now, anyway), a blessing goes even further. I had implied
before that we human beings have no power when compared with G-d, Who is
the Source of all life. That’s true…but it’s also not true. As Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch beautifully points out (in his commentary on this
week’s parsha), a human being does have a unique (G-d given) power in this
world, and the blessing itself is the perfect expression of that power!
"To bless G-d [he writes] means: to further G-d’s purposes and wishes ,
which the free-willed acts of human beings are responsible…"
When we make a blessing, then, we are meant to be strengthening our
dedication to follow G-d’s Will more closely, making "a vow to live for
the fulfillment of His wish with the strength which is…to be obtained by
eating the food." What is His wish for us? To spread awareness, through
all the deeds we perform and the words we utter throughout our lives, of
the truth that He is "melekh ha’olam," King of the Universe (a phrase that
is also part of every blessing).
In fact, our whole lives as Jews are meant to be…a blessing! This is what
G-d told Avraham, when He sent him away from his home towards the Land of
Canaan: "And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make
your name great, and you shall be a blessing." (Genesis: 12, 2) This is
the mission of our people in this world: to be a living acknowledgement--a
witness--of the existence and power (and goodness) of Hashem.
This is why we have a commandment of blessing Hashem after eating bread.
And this is why our Sages (wisely) expanded the institution of blessings
so that in the course of our lives (throughout each and every day), we
Jews have countless opportunities to connect the pleasures and blessings
of life back with the Source of All blessing. (The Talmud says that we
really should bless Hashem for every single breath we take…but then who
would have time to write, or read, parsha sheets…or drink coffee??)
Through the blessings we make, we strengthen our connection to G-d, become
worthy vessels to receive His light, and re-dedicate ourselves to our
sacred calling, as children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "…and you shall
be a blessing."
*STEP’S JEWISH BUSINESS ETHIC LUNCHEON: THIS WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 20TH, AT 12
NOON AT PORTMAN’S MUSIC SUPERSTORE.
*BENA, SAVANNAH’S TORAH STUDY SESSION FOR WOMEN, RESUMES NEXT SUNDAY,
AUGUST 24TH, AT 10:30AM, AT THE J.E.A.
August 8-9, 2003
11 Av, 5763
"Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One…And these words that I
command you today shall be upon your heart…Bind them as a sing upon your
arm and let them be ornaments between your eyes…And write them on the
doorposts of your house and upon your gates." (6, 4-9)
Transitions in life can pose a difficult challenge for us. As we shift
from one phase to another, we may feel ourselves losing our sense of
security and stability. Though there is often excitement at the prospect
of new experiences, we are, at the same time, vulnerable to being diverted
from long-established (and perhaps healthy) patterns of thought and
behavior. We can become unfocused.
I think you’ll agree (if you give it just a moment’s thought) that our
Torah--with its myriad mitzvot [commandments], offering guidance in every
sphere of our lives--essentially functions as a grand Divine program to
help us Jews avoid becoming unfocused during our journey on earth.
Our tradition teaches that G-d put us here to achieve a great and
transcendent purpose: to elevate ourselves, and sanctify the whole
physical world, so that all Creation can attain holiness and closeness to
G-d. That’s a mighty important job, and every moment is precious…and we
human beings tend to be forgetful. We are easily distracted and diverted
in this world with its innumerable attractions. We need many reminders to
help us stay in touch with our basic purpose--to help us to keep our
spiritual focus, even while partaking of many of the permitted delights
this world offers us. And especially, perhaps, we need those reminders
when we are in transition.
While each individual mitzvah of the Torah gives (indispensable)
"nourishment" to a certain unique aspect of our spiritual selves, the
mitzvot collectively work to make sure that we do not become unfocused.
Chayim Luzzatto makes this very point in his classic work on Jewish
thought and spirituality, The Way of G-d: "Man serves G-d by observing all
His commandments, and the root purpose of this service is to make man
always conscious of G-d, and to turn him in G-d’s direction."
There are many, many directions to go in this world--and a lot of them,
wrong-- but the mitzvot turn us (wherever we find ourselves) in G-d’s
One mitzvah, in particular, can play a particularly important role in
keeping us always headed in the right direction. Its greatness, though, is
often overlooked. Indeed, many of us usually walk right by it (literally)
without giving it as much as a glance…or, more importantly, a thought.
Yes, you guessed it: the
writings that are to be affixed to "the doorposts of your house, and upon
The writings are the key to the mezuzah, not the cover (however beautiful)
that is placed on top for protection. A parchment (not paper), on which
are written (not photocopied) the first two paragraphs of the Shema:
Deuteronomy 6, 4-9 (in this week’s parsha) and Deuteronomy 11, 13-21 (in
next week’s parsha). The first paragraph
speaks--among other things--of the Unity of G-d, and of our obligation to
love Him and to meditate on His Torah constantly, to recite the Shema
(watchword of our faith) in the morning and the evening…and to affix a
mezuzah on our doorposts and gates. The second paragraph exhorts the
Jewish people to fulfill ALL of the mitzvot, reminding us that our success
as a people depends on their fulfillment. (It teaches us, therefore, the
key Jewish concepts of G-d’s supervision over this world, and of reward
and punishment--i.e., consequences--for the actions we choose.)
Is it not true that each time we cross the threshold of our homes, either
going in or going out, we are experiencing a transition? Is it not true
that at such a time we especially need to make sure we maintain our focus?
(Actually, the same could be said for crossing from one room into
another…and, in Jewish law, each habitable room requires a mezuzah on its
As we go from our home to the outside world, we need to strengthen our
focus on what life is all about--lest we become spiritually unfocused in
our struggle to make a living, or in our other mundane involvements. And
as we come from the outside world into our homes, we need to remember that
the Torah intends our homes to be miniature Tabernacles or Holy Temples:
sanctified places of holiness, where the Word of G-d is studied and lived
(and taught to the next generation).
Mezuzah helps remind us of the most important principles in Jewish
life--helps us call those key concepts written in the Shema back to our
distracted minds--as we transition from the private realm to the public
realm, and back again. We can thereby re-inspire ourselves to sanctify
both those realms through our mindful fulfillment of the Torah’s
commandments. In the striking words of the
Chayim (from The Concise Book of Mitzvot, a compendium of all the
mitzvot that can be observed at the present time, published by Feldheim;
"A person has a duty to take care about a mezuzah, so that every time he
enters or leaves he will encounter the unity of the blessed G-d
[written in the mezuzah] and will remember his
love for Him, and so he will awaken from his
slumber and his blunders in [straying after] the transitory pursuits of
the time. And he
will realize that nothing endures forever and ever except
a knowledge of the ‘Rock of the World’ [G-d], and so he will return
at once to his settled frame of mind [i.e.
FOCUS!] and walk in the paths of uprightness and decency." (pp. 25-26)
Many people touch a mezuzah as they pass through a doorway, and kiss their
fingertips. This is a commendable practice, no doubt, as it is a
(split-second) reminder of holiness in the world. But the full benefit of
this mitzvah (as with every mitzvah) comes when there is a moment of
thought, of hisbonenus, ["meditation"] on its profound message. What an
incredible opportunity presents itself to us when we walk through a simple
doorway: to consciously call to mind that G-d alone is the One enduring
reality, and His Torah is our guideline (lifeline!) for a meaningful and
blessing-filled existence. Perhaps we will not be able (right away) to
make every doorway the occasion for connecting to G-d, but the opportunity
is there for us to grab as much as we can.
May we all deepen our appreciation of the mitzvah of mezuzah…and hurry
before Rosh Hashanah to take care of any bare doorposts that may still be
standing around. (In the South, we’d say, Y’all better get fixin’ to do
some affixin’!) And may all our many comings and goings be healthy, and
full of meaning and purposeful direction!
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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