Thursday, July 25, 2013

Two-Way Street

Lately, it seems that the observant community has a penchant for dealing with big-picture political types of issues without taking a needed vacation. We've engaged in collective conversations (sometimes not quite conversations) on Israeli politics, the chief rabbinate, the modern kollel system financially and religiously, mandatory army service for all, feminism, women clergy, mesirah, child-abuse, racism in Jewish culture, civil and religious same-sex marriage, and now biblical criticism.  No doubt, all of these issues are important, some of them extremely so, as Orthodox Judaism confronts modernity head on.  Still, most of these issues concern themselves with the structure of Judaism or the hierarchy of organized Jewish life; for a while, I'd like to return to basic substantive Jewish issues.

Likely, blessings are the most common and frequent expression of Jewish religion at the current time. Regardless of theological philosophy, denomination, political preference, blessings as a means of expression are nearly universally accepted and practiced.  We make blessings over objects and actions ranging from the mundane to the holy.  There are blessings before and after consumption of food, after using the bathroom, upon arising, upon going to bed, upon hearing bad news or being informed of a death, upon birth and joyous occasions, on weddings, britot, holidays, candles, wine, lightning, thunder, fragrances . . . . (this could go on for a long time).  Blessings are important component of Judaism, whether or not one believes them to be legally required or merely spiritually efficacious.  It was just this sort of near-universal embrace that recently caused Rabbi Avi Shafran to publish an essay on the Cross Currents suggesting an all-out embrace of brachot as a response to elevate levels of discord.

Ever since I was first introduced to the Talmud, I've taken an extra interest in the tractate on blessings.  I'm not sure what it is, but I find the subject compelling.  Perhaps it's the fact that it's the first masechet that I learned, or simply the relevance of its subject matter to everyday life.  Either way, I'd like to share some personal reflections and thoughts about the way we bless.

In large part, our blessings are substantially a way to transcend the physical and focus on God, the ultimate spiritual ontology.  Who gives us our food?  Who put us here in the first place, that we should be able to partake of food?  We've survived till this exciting season, but Who has sustained us, and for what purpose?  We open by declaring "Baruch Atah Hashem . . . ."  We open by declaring that God is blessed, and by speaking directly to God, as if to ascend the heavens and approach Him directly.  Both the diction and the grammar cause us to focus on God directly.  Nevermind for the moment the various opinions and disputes about what it means for God to be blessed.  Ultimately, the opening of the beracha brings us to focus on God as a way to appreciate what we have and place it in perspective.

There is, however, another part to each and every blessing, the second part.  During this part, we focus not on God or some theosophical notion of who or what God is, but rather on what it is God does in our world.  From our ascent to the height of the heavens, we descend rapidly and completely to the physical realities of earthly existence, and contemplate them well.  We focus on the commandments (usually actions) that God has commanded us to do, the lightning he has created, the wine we have fermented, and so on.  Ultimately, the conclusion of the beracha is designed to cause an almost meditative mindfulness and awareness of physical phenomena as a way to more deeply and substantively appreciate God's input.

Sometimes, it feels like we focus almost exclusively on the first part of the equation, as if we could just approach a conception of God without assistance.  For these past few weeks, I've started to try and give equal weight to the end of the beracha, in an effort to appreciate the handiwork, the substance of our lives, and therein the Creator who made them. 

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