January 9, 2013
Day 59 - Why Say a Blessing?
Rav Huna said that Rav said that Rabbi Meir said; and so it was taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva: One must always accustom oneself to say, “Everything that G-d does, He does for the best.” (Berakhot 60b, Koren Talmud Bavli)
Was Rabbi Akiva an irrational optimist? He sounds a bit like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, who would chirp “It’s all for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds,” as tragedy befell his companions. And yet, three Sages reinforce Rabbi Akiva’s teaching. Why are they all so committed to a rosy worldview? It’s especially odd when we recall that Rabbi Akiva died a horrific death at the hands of Roman captors, because he continued teaching Torah after they banned it.
R’ Akiva’s words appear in the first tractate of the Talmud: Berakhot, i.e. Blessings. The Sages made it the first of 63 tractates because blessings are CRUCIAL. We recite them on countless occasions, and R’ Akiva’s teaching follows a long list of morning blessings. What is the connection between these formulaic blessings and accustoming ourselves to say that everything G-d does is for the best?
Like this [incident,] when Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a certain city. He inquired for lodging and they did not give him [any]. He said, “Everything that G-d does, He does for the best.” (Berakhot 60b con’t, Koren Talmud Bavli)
My close friend, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, says that every blessing has two components: a body and a soul, or a revealed truth and a hidden truth. The revealed truth about blessings is: G-d created the universe, so everything in it belongs to Him, and when we partake of His goodness, we ought to request permission and give thanks. Failing that, we act like boors and interlopers.
[Rabbi Akiva] went and slept in a field and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster; and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said, “Everything that G-d does, He does for the best.” (Berakhot 60b con’t, Koren Talmud Bavli)
The hidden truth goes much deeper. Nearly all blessings begin Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, or in Hebrew, “Baruch Atah Adoshem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’Olam…” (I altered the Holy Names in the traditional way, so that we do not speak them in vain when we are merely discussing them). Most of us run past these six words without really hearing them, because they are so familiar, and that is a big mistake.
The first word is Baruch. Blessed. Now, G-d doesn’t need us to declare that He is blessed - all blessing flows from G-d. So why do we bless Him? The hidden truth is that every blessing is an opportunity to experience the Divine flow of blessing. Baruch derives from the same Hebrew root as berech, or knee. Thus, blessing is related to kneeling. We don’t kneel to some far away, unknowable G-d – we kneel in the presence of our G-d.
He went and slept in a field and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster; and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said, “Everything that G-d does, He does for the best.” (Berakhot 60b con’t, Koren Talmud Bavli)
We recite blessings to remind ourselves that we are in G-d’s presence at all times. The great gift we are receiving when we make a Kiddush is not the wine in the Kiddush cup, but rather the Divine energy which is already flowing through us, joining the Infinite to the finite through the only substance that partakes of both worlds: our souls.
That night, an army came and took the city into captivity. [It turned out that Rabbi Akiva alone, who was not in the city and had no lit candle, noisy rooster or donkey to give away his location, was saved.] He said to them,”Didn’t I tell you? Everything that G-d does, He does for the best.” (Berakhot 60b con’t, Koren Talmud Bavli)
Now we can begin to understand the connection between Rabbi Akiva’s faith in G-d’s beneficence and the long list of everyday blessings. Rabbi Meir says we should utter 100 blessings a day (Menachot 43b). That sounds like a chore, but in fact every blessing is an opportunity to experience the Divine flow.
Rabbi Akiva had faith in the night and was rewarded in the morning. But what if the reward doesn’t come in the morning? What do we do when the night goes on and on? The answer is, keep saying blessings. They strengthen our faith that the morning is coming. Moreover, blessings can make the night less painful. For example…
These days, I find myself veering erratically between joy and terror. My new film, Saving Lincoln, is complete and will soon appear in theaters. We’re launching its release on a new platform called Kickstarter, which allows people to support the film, rather than simply consume it. Every time a new backer comes aboard, I get an email and a thrill: “We have an audience! People believe in me! My career is soaring!” Then a few hours go by without activity: “Oh, we peaked. No one really cares about Lincoln. I’ll have to find a new career at the worst possible time…”
It’s all insanity, of course - the truth is perpetually in the middle, and success can only accrue step by step, commensurate with the opportunities G-d gives me, and the work I’ve put into this over many years. Blessings help me remember that. Blessings keep me sane when life gets crazy.
So, here’s the way I approach them. When I say a blessing, over a piece of bread for example, I focus on that first word, Baruch. I remember that the divine flow is emanating from the Infinite into this world through my soul, right now. Full stop. I open myself to experiencing that.
From there, it is natural to enjoy the piece of bread, and to appreciate all the people who helped make it and bring it to me. Moreover, I intend to transform the calories within that bread into work that benefits others: family, community, etc.
Every time I remember to do that, tension leaves me. I think more clearly and I get more done. If life is throwing me a heavy challenge, I can handle it better in a blessing state of mind. And that is why one “recites a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he does for the good.” (Berakhot 54a, Koren Talmud Bavli)
My friends, I pray you will all be blessed with perfect health and bountiful prosperity. If that’s happening for you, I suggest you add a few blessings to your routine. If it’s not happening for you, I suggest you add a few blessings to your routine.
Salvador Litvak’s upcoming film, Saving Lincoln, explores Abraham Lincoln's fiery trial as Commander-in-Chief through the eyes of his closest friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. This unique film features sets created from actual Civil War photographs. Learn more at http://kck.st/RV4QOh, where you can bless Sal by becoming a backer.