Suppose somebody were to stop you in a store, right at the checkout counter, and ask you what is the essence of being a Jew. It goes without saying that the person asking wants an answer within about 30 seconds, because that’s how much time they have before they get tied up with something more important, like paying for their stuff. What would you answer?
When all the dust clears, there is really only one thing that spans the entire history of Judaism. It is blessing and thanking God for everything that we have. Right off the bat, there are questions on this questionable conclusion. What if someone has nothing to thank God for? What if they think everything they have is their own doing and that God had nothing to do with it? Plus there is the big question – what about all the bad stuff? Are we supposed to just put our heads in the sand and praise God for the good and let God off the hook for the bad?
Blessings are everywhere in the Siddur. Every one of them carries the same message – to acknowledge God’s role in everything from the foods we eat to the mitzvot we do, to the significant moments in life, to the sights and sounds of the natural world. In addition to these blessings there are countless prayers, insertions, and miscellaneous sayings that drive home the point that we can never thank God enough. Hardly a page can be found in the Siddur without something about thanking or blessing God. In fact, there is so much of it that many Jews feel a kind of overload, leading to the familiar pattern of just saying the words with no feeling behind it.
The very first line in almost every traditional Siddur, and the first thing a Jew says upon waking, is: ‘I give thanks before You, King who lives forever, that You have returned my soul to me in kindness, great is Your faithfulness.’ As basic and essential a feeling as having a soul is, it's one more thing to thank God for. There is a several-paragraph long passage found towards the beginning of the Siddur that may give us a clue into how central blessing and thanksgiving is. This passage has no traditional name, and it isn’t necessarily on everybody’s daily list of required prayers. It goes back to the oldest known Siddur, the Seder of Rav Amram of the 9th century, and is difficult to trace earlier. It paints an unusual picture of why we are here and how and why we praise and thank God:
‘A person should always fear God privately and publicly, and acknowledge the truth, and speak the truth in his heart, and rise early and say: “Master of the universe…it is not by virtue of our righteousness that we place our supplications before You, but on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? ... Most of our deeds are worthless and the days of our lives are empty before You, and the difference between man and animals is nothing, since all is empty, except for the pure soul that is destined to give an accounting before Your throne of glory… But we are the children of Abraham…the seed of Isaac…and the community of Jacob whom You called Yisrael. Therefore we are obligated to thank You and to praise You and to glorify You and to bless and sanctify and give praise and thanks to Your name. We are fortunate, how good is our lot, and how pleasant our portion, and how beautiful our inheritance. We are fortunate in that we rise early and stay late in the synagogues and study halls and unify Your name each day always, and say twice every day with love: Listen Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is one…”’
The puzzling thing about this passage is its excessive language declaring our own worthlessness in the face of God. Wouldn’t praising God be even more truthful and meritorious if we were more than glorified animals? Is it only because we lack any inherent worth that we must praise and thank God? Where does the obligation to praise and thank come from? Is it only because we are descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or is it somehow connected to our pure soul? When one thinks about these words, one gets the feeling that some secret path to God lurks inside. What is it?
‘What are we? What are our lives?’ These are deep questions that can easily be missed in the course of rushing through morning davening. But there they are. How often do we ask ourselves these questions? Once in a lifetime, perhaps, or maybe never? But they don’t go away. We think we are so wonderful with our important and busy lives, spinning out a legacy of accomplishment and progeny. We tend to believe that the world revolves around every emotion that enters our minds. A stubbed toe puts the entire universe on hold. An insult to honor or unrequited love is enough to demand creation be reset to address the injustice. But what really are we? The scientists are right. We are nothing but a glorified animal - eating, breathing, defecating, mating, and dying. Is there anything else?
Yes, there is. There is a soul that must give an accounting for itself. What did it do with the time that it was given? Was it spent wisely in a manner befitting its pure and ethereal being, or was it squandered on vanity and emptiness? These are questions that we must answer, much as we are reluctant to ask them and even more reluctant to hear the answers. But that soul is in there and it is our very essence. It may not be what we are but it is who we are. That soul, in some way is a daily gift from the Maker of souls. It is a gift that we must return when we lose consciousness with only faith to ensure that we will receive it back we when awaken.
What would life be like without a soul? Perhaps we could eat and breathe and produce offspring. But life would be devoid of everything of value and beauty. We would not be able to see in the sunrise anything more than a time to start the next round of survival. We would see people as nothing more than potential assets or rivals in our daily battle. We would see ourselves as the machines that we really are when stripped of anything spiritual. The soul, whether we choose to acknowledge its existence or not, gives meaning to our otherwise empty lives and a purpose to aim for.
But there is more here. The Jews, those who are to go through this soul-searching dialogue every morning, are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Patriarchs represent the Biblical epitome of dedication to God’s will. So we have this combination of a pure soul and a tradition instructing us what to do with it. Therefore, the only logical conclusion to be drawn is that we must let the soul be a soul and let it praise and thank and bless to its heart’s content. How fortunate are we that we have been given such a task – the task of using the soul for the purpose for which it was created.
The passage concludes with the ultimate praise and thanksgiving. We gather in the morning and evening to declare God’s oneness. This is not simply a rejection of pagan polytheism. It is a declaration of God’s unity, of the simple but infinitely profound realization that everything comes from God. Good stuff, bad stuff, the good and the bad within our very selves, our lives, our deaths, our abilities and all the happenings that befall us – they all come from God. In every one of them we must feel a sense of love and gratitude towards God who gives us the wherewithal to experience them.
It is not easy to attribute everything to God. What about all the stuff that I do? What about my brains, my good looks, my efforts, my inner feelings. Those things also, as personal as they may be, are also a gift. The fruit that we eat, is a creation of God. Our thoughts and emotions and willpower are similarly gifts from God. We have to work with those gifts and mold them into something God would be proud of, but they are gifts nevertheless. Praising, blessing God, thanking God – they all really means of acknowledging that it all comes from God. It means spending a lifetime on a quest to realize that this is so. If a person comes to a full realization of this even once, it was a lifetime well spent.
The most commonly recited blessing is a rather simple one that expresses the core idea of what it means to praise God. It is the food blessing that praises God with the words ‘shehakol nih’yeh bidvaro’ – that everything happens through His word. This blessing is recited on all foods that don’t grow from the ground. It is also the default blessing for any food (take our word for it, blessings are not a haphazard free-for-all in Judaism – they come with a cadre of rules). This blessing really says it all. God is blessed as the source for everything – from cold beer to pastrami to flavored cough medicine. But why stop there? God is the source for the person eating the food and saying the blessing. God is even the source for the inspiration to say the blessing. God hovers within the mindfulness of a blessing recited with kavanah, and lingers on the fringes of a blessing said with no feeling.
Perhaps the following is an exercise worth considering: the next time you feel that God isn’t worth praising - that ‘what have you done for me lately?’ feeling. Take a glass of cool, clear water on a hot day and just look at it. It hardly costs anything, nobody really had to do anything to it to make it what it is, and you know that it’s going to hit the spot. But just look at it. Notice its clearness - that you can see right through it almost as if it isn’t there. Dip your tongue into it and notice the texture of the water. It has none, again almost as if it isn’t there. There is no smell to it. But even without all this, nothing quite ‘does it’ like a glass of water. It comes with no bells and whistles, no artificial ingredients, no multi-syllable preservatives, yet its taste will remain the same forever. Before tossing that water down the hatch, try some version of this blessing. Let God know that you recognize the ultimate source of this water and that it is not just the 14 billion year old result of some cosmic belch. If you feel anything inside as you recite those word, you’ve probably awakened your soul. It is simply a matter of moving every single thing from its mundane ordinariness to its holy godliness. But it’s just living as a soul and not as a body. Let the soul speak. Hallelujah.
Food for Thought
This whole system works well when one is in the right mood and the setting is conducive to spiritual awareness. What about when either one of those conditions is off? How does one go about thanking and blessing God when things are going lousy or when the atmosphere just doesn’t inspire it?
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