By Rabbi Chaim Weiner
‘Ve’achalta ve’savata u’verachta et Adonai elohecha al ha’aretz ha’tova asher natan lach.’
‘When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.’ (Deut. 8:10)
The reading this week includes a commandment to recite blessings after we have eaten. The Rabbis have expanded this to require blessings whenever we partake of the goodness of this world. ‘Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel: Anyone who benefits from this world without a reciting blessing – it is as if he or she is a thief.’ (Brachot 35)
Why does God need our blessings? Rabbi Judah takes a legal approach. What right do we have to the bounty of this world? What right do we have to partake of the fruit of the trees, the produce of the land, the honey in the hive or the flesh of the animals that we eat? We have no rights beyond God’s kindness in providing them for us. The blessing is a kind of legal transaction. In the blessing we ask for permission to benefit from God’s world. And there is an assumption that we only have to ask for the permission to be granted…
Maimonides sees the blessings as having an educational purpose. He was a behaviourist. He believed that if people repeated actions repeatedly they would change their habits and their way of thinking. If a person repeats, ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God…’ enough times, he or she will internalise that message. And since the occasions to recite blessings are many, the opportunity to reinforce that message is always there.
Rabbi Judah HaLevy, a mediaeval Spanish philosopher, writes that we recite blessings because we are all prone to take God’s world for granted. We don’t notice how beautiful the world is or appreciate how wonderful it is; that the crops grow to provide our nutrition or that our needs are taken care of in numerous other ways. The blessing isn’t for God, it is for us.
This type of activity, where a person engages in a kind of meditation before doing something, is called ‘normal mysticism’. It is a few seconds of removing ourselves from what we are doing to contemplate the broader meaning of our actions. It is not unlike the current movement of ‘mindfulness’.
This is an approach that speaks to me. Living with an awareness of God’s presence is the essence of being religious. Therefore prayer, in the widest sense possible, is the core activity of a religious life.
Many of us struggle with engaging with regular prayer. There are many reasons for this, not least the fact that it can take half an hour or an hour of our time to participate in regular services. Even praying alone at home can take 10, 20 or 30 minutes. Who has time for that?
But the blessing is different. It only takes a few seconds. It accompanies us throughout our day. If one wishes to add a moment of awe and of inspiration, a moment of religious awareness to their lives, my suggestion is to start with the world of blessings. It only needs a few seconds, but it creates a change of focus. And that change of focus can make all the difference.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is head of the European Masorti Bet Din