Appreciating Existence – Chukat 5774
In our parsha, the pagan prophet and seer, Bilaam, attempts to curse the Jewish people, but through Divine intervention only succeeds in blessing them. One of the central themes of this parsha is the power of blessings and curses. In our own lives also, blessings can be very powerful tools for becoming better people. Many people seem to be bored with their lives. They look for diversion in activities such as swimming with sharks, bungee jumping and extreme sports. Others obsessively pursue whatever is new — fashion, music, or high-tech gadgets. This boredom really stems not from a lack of novelty, but from a lack of appreciation of life itself and all the blessings of life. A person who takes pleasure in his very existence, who savors the beauty of the natural world and the richness of human relationships is unlikely to be bored, or to take anything for granted. A young child finds the world endlessly fascinating; but too often the sense of wonder erodes in adulthood. Through the recitation of blessings, Judaism tries to help us retain this unspoiled perspective and increases our appreciation of the pleasure and wonder of life.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevy, a 12th century philosopher and poet taught, “G-d wants us to rejoice in the good that He has given us, as the verse states, ‘You shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your G-d has given you.’”
A crucial technique in achieving this goal is enhancing our awareness of what we really have. This is done by saying a prayer of appreciation to G-d before we benefit from His world and by thanking Him after we enjoy His blessings. These prayers are called berachot, blessings. If we go through each day, understanding the blessings that we recite, we can become happier, more generous people, grateful to G-d for all His goodness.
Some of these blessings are recited before partaking of a pleasure, others praise G-d for the wonders of the natural world or beautiful sights, and some are recited before the performance of a mitzvah. All of these prayers enable us to pause, reflect, and to appreciate what we are about to do, what we have just done, or what we are experiencing.
Rather than a generic “thank you G-d,” Jewish law specifies a different blessing for every category of food and enjoyment. In this way, Judaism impresses upon us the abundance of good, the diversity of pleasures and the rich complexity of G-d’s gifts to us. Even though we could survive without things like cinnamon, chocolate, kiwi, roses and magnificent sunsets (OK, not chocolate), G-d chose to create a world that is abundant in pleasurable foods, fragrances, sights and experiences. In our blessings, we acknowledge this diversity by saying specific prayers for each pleasure, thereby enhancing our gratitude for every one.
The Talmud points out an apparent contradiction. One verse in Psalms states that, “the world, and everything in it, is G-d’s.” Yet another verse states, “the heavens are G-d’s heaven, but the world He gave to man.” The Sages explain that the first verse refers to the world before one has said a blessing, and the second verse applies after one has said a blessing. The Talmud deduces from this that one may not derive benefit from this world without saying a blessing. It is essential to our understanding of our relationship with G-d that we acknowledge Him as Creator and Sustainer of the world. The fact that G-d created the world ex nihilo, from nothing, and continues to sustain it, confers upon Him absolute rights of ownership. We acknowledge this ownership and our indebtedness to G-d by saying a blessing before we eat or derive any benefit from His world. Only when we have done this, have we earned the right to partake of the world and enjoy it. Thus, in addition to the psychological benefits that it confers, saying berachot is a moral imperative as well. It is the way we request permission to use G-d’s world and show our awareness of the existence of the Benefactor.