The Jewish Mindfulness Series: Part II
The Power of Blessings
In my last blog on Judaism and Mindfulness we discussed how today’s fast paced world has created a greater need for mindfulness and how Jewish tradition, through a focused performance of mitzvot, enables us to achieve that much-needed awareness. We reviewed how the mitzvot are physical activities, either positive actions or activities from which we refrain, designed to bring about a certain sense of inner mindfulness of the ultimate reality. In this entry, I’d like to focus on how prayers and blessings can, in a simple but powerful way, make us cognizant and grateful of the most important gifts in our lives.
Contrary to popular perception, when we recite a blessing we are not blessing God. God, Jewish tradition teaches, is the very definition of perfection and, as such, does not need our blessing. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the source of our bounty and good fortune. The Hebrew word for blessings, bracha is linguistically connected to the word breicha, or “spring”, the source of water. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the ultimate source for whatever life gift we are about to enjoy so we can become more aware and ultimately appreciative of the gifts we often take for granted. This explains why, for example, when saying a blessing before eating some fruit, we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree”. We do not say “bless you” God but rather, “blessed are you God” – for we are simply acknowledging God as the source of the fruit, which is critical to becoming a more grateful person. And as all the studies show, grateful people are happier people.
When we wake up each morning, Jewish tradition teaches us to recite the “Modeh Ani” prayer: “I thank you O everlasting King for returning my soul to me, great is your faith”. Again, we are not blessing God but acknowledging Him as the source of our blessing – in this case, for our very existence. The Sages, who composed this short prayer, purposely omitted God’s name so it could be recited immediately upon awakening, even before having to leave our beds to wash our hands. It was important to the Sages that our first words of the day should ones of gratitude and renewal, emphasizing that with each new day, God returns our souls to our bodies, allowing us to live another day. We become mindful that we are entering a new day, with new opportunities and not the same old drudge. We’re not the same as we were the day before, not spiritually and not even physically. Our cells keep changing. Scientists believe that 98% of all the cells and 1/7 of all the atoms in our bodies are replaced every year. Saying the Modeh Ani prayer helps us connect to this theme of newness and renewal.
Another layer of insight is expressed in the last words of the prayer: “great is your faith”. We do not say, great is “our faith”, referring to our faith in God but rather “your faith” referring to God’s faith in us. We begin our day by acknowledging God’s belief in us, a daily encouragement that our Creator thinks us worthy of life. God believes we have the potential to reach our goals – that’s why he gave us another day to live. In a generation which struggles with self-esteem, starting our day with mindfulness of our self-worth is critical.
Just as critical though is being aware of our basic biological functions. Therefore, Judaism prescribes the Asher Yatzar blessing for when one emerges from the bathroom. On the surface, saying a blessing after discharging bodily waste, seems like a strange practice. Every so often I’ll see someone mumbling something to themselves outside of a bathroom and I smile. Although it may look a bit strange, saying a blessing after going to the bathroom enables us to appreciate an important physiological function while we still have. Our general tendency is to appreciate our health only after a medical scare – when a part of our bodily functions has been threatened. After undergoing hernia surgery, I was told I would be allowed to leave the hospital only after moving my bowels. After being able to do so I remember feeling so happy and grateful, though it was something I had done countless times before. Jewish mindfulness means becoming aware and grateful for what we have right now. This is particularly critical in affluent countries where our basic needs are already met and we often wait for the next great thing to happen to make us happy. Judaism teaches that we already have what it takes to be happy – we just don’t realize it. Blessings help us feel this.
The after-bathroom blessing concludes with these words: “Hashem heals all flesh and performs a wonder.” What’s the wonder? Among the different answers offered, the “wonder” refers to the soul which is connected to the body, namely, that the physical can live alongside the spiritual. Every time we thank God that our body’s plumbing is working, we are reminded of the soul within us – that while we are grateful for our bodies, ultimately it is the soul or the spiritual part of us that defines us. We are soul’s with bodies and not the reverse.
The Jewish sages instituted a number of other daily blessings corresponding to different aspects of our physical existence, again enabling us to become mindful and grateful of life’s gifts. For instance, every morning we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who gives sight to the blind”. In reciting this blessing, we become aware and hence more grateful for the important gift of sight. As the great religious Zionist thinker, Rabbi Shlomo Zevin comments, the blessing also generally ensure we do not become blind to the many blessings in our lives.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who clothes the naked” helps us appreciate the clothing we have. Other than appreciating the actual clothing we are blessed to have, on a deeper level, the Hebrew word to for clothing, “levush”, contains the same letters as the word “busha” meaning “shame.” Clothing provides a sense of modesty and preserves a healthy sense of shame. Not the kind of shame that demeans, but one which ensures we don’t give away too much of ourselves to others.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who releases the imprisoned” celebrates our ability to stretch and be mobile, to move from one place to the next. This can also refer to our ability to break free of any self-imposed negativity or restrictions with which we shackle ourselves. There are times when we imprison ourselves with limiting thoughts or negative self-image. This blessing reminds us that we can control the way we think of ourselves and adopt a positive attitude in any situation. The great 20th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Soloveitchik, taught that although we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control how we deal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The prayer, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who spreads the earth upon the waters” reminds us of the deliberate and precise creation of everything in the physical universe. We know from science that if the earth were any closer to the sun, our world would incinerate and if it was too far, the earth would freeze. Everything is so precise, bespeaking a Creator that has thought out everything and left very little to chance. This blessing causes us to reflect upon the fundamental Jewish teaching that life is purposeful and worthy of taking seriously since nothing, including the world itself, is random.
Prayers and blessings are not only important for appreciating what we have, be it sight, clothing or good health. On a deeper spiritual level, prayer is also necessary to realize
what we don’t have – what we are lacking spiritually. The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of the Lubavitcher movement likens our spiritual existence after the Temple’s destruction, what we call galut (exile), to a person wandering in the dessert thirsty for water. The dessert is a place which forces one to feel a certain lacking. The very reason we were sent into this dessert, the Tzemach Tzedek teaches, is to feel a sense of what is missing in our lives, so we can long for something greater. Praying allows us to feel that lacking because when we pray, it helps us tune in to our souls – the more spiritual part of who we are – and we start to hear the deeper things we long for in life. The prayers refer us to the pain and suffering that exist in our world and to all the people who are in need of healing. When we recognize what’s deeper and we feel that sense of lack, we are drawn closer to Hashem for what we don’t have and for more depth in our often, superficial lives.
Thus, on one hand, prayer helps us realize our blessings but it also makes us aware of where we’re missing, in our closeness to our very source, our Creator. This is why sometimes when a person meets a tzadik – a truly righteous person, they start to cry. When we experience real holiness manifested in another person, it causes us to reflect on our own lives. We often become so focused on success in this world that we forget our ultimate purpose that we were journeying for in the first place. There is a story told of a man traveling to India who learned that his flight had to stopover in France for a few hours. As a result he spent the entire flight learning how to speak French. When the man landed in France he was able to speak, go shopping and have a wonderful experience during the few hour stopover. However, when he arrives in India, the original purpose of his trip, he is completely lost. Prayer help us keep our final destination in mind, so we don’t get too caught up building stopover skills and forget our ultimate purpose.
Thus, prayer and blessings are vital, not only in appreciating what we have today but in remembering why we’ve taken this journey in the first place.