Blessings: The Energy of Existence
What is God?
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The development of blessings is a fascinating subject that leaves traditional Jews a little bit unsettled. Traditionalists prefer it if things go back to Biblical times, to make them more venerable and meaningful. If the blessings were nothing more than the creative work of rabbis studying in a rabbinic academy of Bavel or the Galilee, they lose some of their power. Hence, the unease at the growth and evolution of blessings. But such is the case, and sometimes the truth must be accepted.
A case in point is what is probably the most commonly recited blessing. It is the blessing recited after eating most types of foods. Because this blessing covers most foods, it will get a lot of air time. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a very common blessing runs a major risk of rote recitation.
This blessing is now called Borei Nefashot, or ‘Creator of life-souls’. For those who are familiar with the Hebrew, it is easy to spot the word nefesh in that phrase. In this case, it refers to the life force of living things. This blessing, despite its common usage, or perhaps because of it, went through considerable changes over the centuries. The earliest source we have of it is in the Mishna but it is expanded upon in the Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud quotes a Rabbi Yitzchak reciting: ‘When one eats meat or eggs he says: Creator of many life-souls to revive in them a soul of all life, blessed are You, Hashem, Life of the Worlds’. The Talmud Bavli has a slightly different text than this in stating the blessing after eating rice or millet: ‘Creator of many life-souls and their needs on all that He created’.
The texts of the two Talmuds seem to have been combined in medieval times into one unified and slightly lengthier blessing. By the time it got to the Shulhan Aruch in the mid-16th century and the widespread use of printing, the blessing read: ‘Creator of many life-souls and their needs on all that You (He) created to revive in them a soul of all life, blessed is the Life of the worlds’. Depending on one’s eating habits, this blessing could potentially be recited several times a day, every day, except for fast days. That’s a lot of times for saying the exact same thing. It pays to know what it means.
The questions about interpretation of this blessing concern the meaning of the phrase ‘and their needs on all that You created to revive in them a soul of all life’. Some interpretations insert a comma in between ‘needs’ and ‘on’, to make them two distinct ideas. The first part of the blessing is ‘Creator of many life-souls and their needs’. The second part is ‘on all that You created…’ According to this reading, the meaning of the second part is unclear. Specifically, that last phrase, ‘to revive in them a life-soul of all life’ needs elaboration.
Why does the blessing start with praising God for creating many life-souls. What are these ‘life-souls’? Additionally, why are we blessing God for creating us with deficiencies? Finally, this conclusion ‘Blessed is the Life of the worlds’ – what does that mean? Which worlds are we talking about? How is God the ‘Life’ of those worlds?
It appears that the Jerusalem Talmud read ‘life-souls’ as referring to the animals. God created animals and the food that they provide us with, like meat and eggs, to revive in us a soul of life. The final blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, Life of the worlds’ - celebrates this life-providing attribute of God. In the Bavli the ‘life-souls’ are of human beings. God created human beings with nutritional deficiencies.
It seems that the final version favors the slant of the Bavli on the life-souls being human beings. However, it includes the line ‘to revive in them a soul of all life’ and the incomplete final blessing. The deficiencies of the life-souls are revived by providing them with ‘a soul of life’. What is ‘a soul of life’? One of the popular modern translations (Artscroll) has this entire phrase rendered: ‘with which to maintain the life of every being’. Thus the deficiencies are made up in a way that maintains each living being’s life. While this is unquestionably the most common interpretation, it does force the additional words, ‘with which’ into the phrase. Those words are not present in any Hebrew version of this blessing. Is there an alternative?
It turns out that there is. What is that final blessing? How does God being the ‘Life of the worlds’ fit in with reviving each life-soul with what it is lacking? We have to understand what the phrase ‘Life of the worlds’ means. What are the ‘worlds’? There is our world, but what other world is there? Well, this doesn’t seem all that difficult to answer. There is the World to Come. God is not only the ‘Life’ of this world, but also the ‘Life’ of the next world. This can no longer mean that God gives them mere food. Rabbinic Judaism rejected the notion that souls in the next world need to eat.
If God is the ‘Life’ of that world it must mean ‘life’ in a non-nutritional sense. It could mean that God is the spiritual ‘life’ of the spiritual dimension. In some way God provides the spiritual energy to sustain that dimension and the spiritual beings that exist within it. God is the ‘Life’ of the physical and spiritual worlds. The ‘Life’ of both worlds is covered in a single word. How could sustaining physical life be comparable to sustaining spiritual life? Aren’t they two completely different things?
Maybe they aren’t. Maybe food is more spiritual than we thought. Maybe spiritual sustenance is a little more nutritional than we thought. Don’t they both boil down to providing the wherewithal to enable the continuance of their existence? God provides that wherewithal in both dimensions. Food is not just food. It’s much more than that. It’s continued existence. It’s taking the energy that God supplies the world with and imbibing it into the life-soul to revive it with more existence. When we eat, we taste and ingest God’s energy.
This is a truly amazing insight into the nature of eating. It has a highly spiritual component to it that almost invariably gets lost in all the fat, sauce, and artificial colors. It is life. It is God’s energy entering us and reviving us. With what are we revived? We are revived with the ‘Soul of all life’. When we eat, we ingest a little bit of the Life-energy of all existence. It’s not just French Fries and ketchup anymore. It’s God’s energy getting into us and granting us continuity. In the next world we may not need fries to keep us existing (it’s not all that clear that we need them in this world either), but we sure will need something. God is the ‘Energy of existence’.
Rereading this blessing, it now says: ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the universe, Creator of many life-souls and the needs of what You created, to revive in them the Soul of all life, Blessed is the Life of all existence’. This is quite a statement. It’s quite a thing to utter after drinking a coke or munching on potato chips. Imagine that we have ingested a few helpings of the ‘Soul of all existence’ when we thought we were just drinking a beer. This blessing focuses us in on what food really is and what it means to exist. To thank God for existence - to bless God for giving us the life-energy of existence is to truly be alive.
Perhaps we can now understand why we bless God for creating us with deficiencies. Without those deficiencies we would not appreciate the great blessing of being able to continue existing. By constantly having to face the possibility of non-existence, by sensing the emptiness of hunger and thirst, we have to look the beast in the eye. Those deficiencies are the royal road to appreciation. We take a lot for granted in life. We take our health for granted, we take our air for granted, we take our food for granted – we take almost everything for granted. But we take nothing for granted more than existence. There is nothing like a little deficiency to give a little jolt into that smug attitude. Existence is a gift, it is the greatest gift there is.
The image that comes out of all this is nothing less than exhilarating. God is the Energy of existence. God is that constant infusion of energy everywhere, usually barely detectable but sometimes obvious. In the case of conscious beings, like us, it is as obvious as feeling satisfied after a meal. The food enters the mouth, it sprinkles the taste buds, and it goes down the throat and into the stomach. We are conscious of all this. But the real magic happens when those preliminary actions are out of the way. The digestion is when the Life of existence becomes a part of us. It is very hard to feel if one isn’t paying much attention and impossible to miss if one is. It is this image of God merging with the human body and becoming one.
Perceiving the Image
There is nothing more enjoyable than the sheer wonder of existing. If there is anything to not take for granted, it is existence. Existence is the most basic state of reality. It is the simple awareness of being, unadulterated by the glitz and the glitter. It cuts through the petty superficialities of the ego and all of its daughter emotions. It subtly overwhelms the powerful pull of physical desires. It puts all of our all-too-human problems into a more proper perspective. They are important, but they pale in comparison to the glory of existence.
Perceiving this image is not limited to the experience of eating. It really can be done with just about anything. The Life-energy exists all around us in all kinds of disguises. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s in the heat we absorb. It’s in the light that enters the eyes and the sounds that ring in the ears. It’s even in such subtle places as the dimensions of space and time. Every second that passes is another moment of existence. Every millimeter of space is another bundle of sheer energy. These are all out there constantly being imbibed, but we are steadfastly unaware of this miracle happening right under our noses.
Here’s an idea. Just once a day try to think about the simple fact that you exist. This needn’t be anything particularly intellectual. Just drop all the important stuff you’re involved in for about one minute and get your mind focused on your own existence. You can do this in any religious or non-religious framework. You don’t need to connect it with eating. It’s all about getting in touch with this miracle that we experience 24/7 that completely escapes our notice. It’s not really a meditation session, though it certainly doesn’t hurt to use meditative techniques to get the mind focused. The main thing is to spend some time thinking about something hardly anybody ever thinks about. It’s about as basic as it gets but also about as wonderful as it gets. It’s a feeling that is available to everyone at any time for no cost whatsoever. It doesn’t require any great training or religious inclination. The only requirement is to do it. It is so easy and so exhilarating that you will wonder why you have never done this before.
If this is so easy why isn’t everyone doing it? Why is it that even in Judaism, which has a blessing specifically dedicated to this feeling, God is almost never perceived as the Energy of existence?
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