Jewish blessings begin with a formula of six words: “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam,” which are often translated as “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,” or “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe.” But every translation is an interpretation and creative interpretations can reveal new layers of meaning. So, seeing as the expansive history of Jewish textual tradition often draws seemingly infinite meaning from a single word, let’s use the creative license that is our spiritual inheritance, shall we?
Blessings for Mitzvot
One of the most common blessings we recite is that which precedes a mitzvah, a particular act or ritual specified by Jewish tradition. In this kind of blessing, the six word formula above is followed by four more: “Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu — Who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us to…,” and then we fill in the particular ritual we are about to perform, like lighting Shabbat candles, putting on a tallit, or studying Torah.
Why do we recite such a blessing before taking part in ritual? I think it has to do with mindfulness. We may light candles for any number of reasons; we put on all kinds of clothing; we (hopefully) frequently read, reflect, and study. Reciting a blessing before doing so this time reminds us that these relatively mundane acts are about to take on significant meaning.
Mitzvot are an invitation to experience holiness in our lives. Not every moment is ripe for holiness; not every mitzvah will resonate with spirituality every time. But the odds are markedly better when we do them. Mitzvot connect us with the generations who came before us and offer a vision of generations to come. They bind us to a larger Jewish community that spans the entire globe. And, at some level — however we understand commandedness — they have the potential to connect us to a Force, a Presence, a Spirit greater and more powerful than ourselves.
So I’m partial to the translation: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us opportunities to experience holiness, specifically this morning/day/evening by…”. I wish I could cite from whom I learned this particular approach (perhaps my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman?), but it’s become so ingrained in my approach to the formula and mitzvot that I honestly can’t remember.
Blessings of Thanksgiving
If blessings for mitzvot are about mindfulness, then blessings of thanksgiving are about awareness. Tradition challenges us to recite 100 blessings a day. That’s a lot of blessings no matter who you are, if you’re not paying attention to the world around you. But if you are paying attention, then opportunities abound: For that rainbow, for this food, for that unique individual, for the glimpse of the ocean I so often take for granted. There is so much in the world for which to be grateful — including, when the world isn’t such a beautiful place, the sacred opportunity to be God’s partners in making it better.
Lab/Shul in New York City describes itself as “an everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.” One of the ways they’ve reached me is with this translation of the blessing formula: “In the presence of the Infinite, I pause with gratitude for…” Sit with that for a moment. Isn’t that beautiful? With this translation, giving expression to our gratitude becomes a deeply spiritual activity — perhaps even a mitzvah, an opportunity to experience holiness.
This will be my last “KKBE Connection” for a little while as I leave shortly for some sabbatical time. The concept of sabbatical derives from a mitzvah in the Torah to allow the land to lie fallow every seven years and be renewed. And so as I prepare to go, I say: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us opportunities to experience holiness, this summer by tending to my spirit and returning to you, my congregation, refreshed and renewed.
As for blessings of thanksgiving, well… my journal is prepared, and I intend to fill it.