What motivates some people to do more than just appreciate the blessings they have in their lives and to actually be a vehicle for blessing?
This week’s portion, Eikev, contains one of the pivotal verses of the entire Torah regarding the concept of blessings:
Ve’achalta’ ve’sava’ta’ u’verachta’ et Hashem Elokecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach. (And [when] you shall eat and be satisfied and bless G-d your G-d for the good land which He has given you.) (Devarim 8:10)
This verse is the biblical basis for the Birkat Hamazon, the four blessings we say after a meal which includes a satisfying helping of bread, and begs a number of questions.
First, how does one bless G-d?
Thanking G-d is one thing — after all, it makes sense to be appreciative of all the gifts we are blessed with and the value of being thankful for it all, especially to the source of all good in this world. But what does it mean to bless G-d? Why would G-d need our blessings, much less demand them? In fact, what exactly is a blessing?
At a Friday night dinner, I recall meeting a fellow who seemed quite prominent in his shul, and who sponsored the evening in memory of his son who had passed away in a tragic car accident. At the end of dinner, thinking it would be appropriate, I asked him if he would honor us by leading the blessings after the meal but he politely declined, saying “I don’t do that!”
Given that he appeared quite knowledgeable in Judaism and seemed familiar and even comfortable with Jewish tradition, I was surprised by his comment and later found the opportunity to ask him what he meant.
“I used to buy it all — the whole nine yards,” he explained to me. “And I still think Judaism is an incredible system with a magnificent community structure. I grew up religious and have never driven on Shabbat nor knowingly placed non-kosher food in my mouth, and I never will. I even believe in G-d — who else could be the reason we are all here?’
“But after He took my son, I’ll be damned if I’m ever going to bless Him again!”
• • •
While at the time, due to the circumstances, I wasn’t able to have the long discussion such a comment almost demands (and of course, far be it from me to have the arrogance to judge such a person, given the pain he had obviously suffered). I did manage to ask him what he thought blessings were. He responded that he had never really thought about it, but upon reflection realized he considered it to be a form of thanksgiving and recognition (and he felt himself unable to be fully thankful to a G-d whom he perceived to have taken his son).
And yet, blessings are not really about saying thank you. The Hebrew word for thanks is todah, which is very different from the Hebrew word for blessing, which is bracha.
In fact, thanksgiving is an entirely different topic, and we do in fact have many blessings that are about thanksgiving, such as the Modim prayer in the silent Amidah and the Nodeh Lecha blessing after meals.
So what is the meaning of the word brachah?
When Hashem blesses Avraham, the verse in Genesis says, “Va’Hashem Beirach et Avraham Bakol (And G-d blessed Avraham with everything).” The commentaries there suggest that Hashem actually blessed Avraham by increasing his wealth as well as his progeny. Rav Soleveitchick adds that this is indeed the true nature of the word bracha, to increase.
Obviously, Hashem doesn’t need our blessings; rather, we need to be blessing Hashem. Blessing G-d is, quite simply, the art of increasing Hashem’s presence in our lives and in all that we do.
Thus, blessing G-d when you are eating an apple is actually a conscious decision to elevate the simple act of eating an apple into an opportunity to appreciate G-d’s presence in your life. And the more we are willing to be partners in bringing G-d into our lives and into this world, the higher level the world, and us along with it, will reach.
In these times filled with so many challenges, and with so much work needed to create a better society, the daily act of blessing our bread serves as both a reminder and an inspiration of how different the world could be, if only we were all willing to make it so.