Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Who Provides My Bread?

What does it mean to bless?  Those of us who are accustomed to doing so on a regular basis – before and/or after we eat, for example – may find it do be just that – a  custom, a habit, something we do pro forma.  We leave the bathroom, and out of our mouths comes “Asher Yatzar,” the blessing thanking Gd for making our bodies work.  I lift food up to my lips, and I instinctively pause:  what kind of food is it?  What is the appropriate blessing? I mumble quietly to myself, or, rather, to the Holy One of Blessing, and then I eat. If asked, any rabbi, any Jew, might explain that blessings are meant to help us pause and see the world around us.  Blessings are moments of gratitude to the Creator, Who made the world that I am enjoying.  Whether it be a slice of bread or a rainbow, there is a blessing to help one truly see it, truly be in the moment with it, and thank Gd for it.  Jews, it is said, are supposed to say some 100 blessings a day.  That’s paying attention

We learn from the blessings themselves, the wording, how it is that the world is made, how we might see it, enjoy it, be grateful. One of the most basic blessings is the “Motzi,” the blessing said over bread.

ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוקינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מין הארץ

Blessed are You, HaShem our Gd, who brings forth bread from the earth.  Simple, yes?  No. Not really.  Most blessings we say over food make perfect sense; they describe the world we know.  Blessed are You, oh Gd who. . . בורא פרי העץ who creates the fruit of the tree,  בורא פרי הגפן  Creator of the fruit of the vine, שהכול נהיה בדברו  even all things are made according to Gd’s word.  But HaMotzi, the most inclusive of all blessings over food — for when we bless over bread, all other foods are included — this prayer is not literally true.  “Who brings forth bread from the earth.”  Gd does not bring forth bread from the earth.  Farmers plant seeds, tend them, water them, harvest wheat, barley, rye, what have you; workers thresh the grains, grind them into flour.  Cooks take the flour, add water, yeast (except at Peach!!), honey even, and knead the dough; we wait for it to rise, then pound it down and knead it again.  We fashion it into loves, braid it with love for Shabbat; Jewish women (and men) take a symbolic piece and toss it into the oven as “challah” and say the blessing, then we bake it.  Only then does it become bread — and we say Motzi.  Gd doesn’t make bread —I do!

This reminds me of another blessing puzzlement.  This other blessing is part of the Birkot HaShachar,  the chain of blessings we say every morning, thanking Gd for everything from creating us in the Divine Image to giving us sight and legs to walk upon.  This one is my favorite.  I stop each time, to read it slowly and think about it.

ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם שעשה לי כול צרכי

Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, who provides for all my needs.

But, oh come on. REALLY?!  This is just not our lived reality.  Life, in general, but especially when you, or a loved one, is ill, does not seem to correspond to the idea that G-d simply provides for all our needs.  It’s not that simple.

I struggle with illness, physical and mental.  My body does not have the energy to get through a normal day; when I am wracked with exhaustion at dinnertime, I wonder, “Is this Gd providing for my needs?”  I live with chronic headaches, making it hard to concentrate, hard to write, hard to be with family and friends.  What kind of life plan is this?  Similarly, when my depression flairs for months at a time, I struggle to bless Gd.  I feel needy, too needy to ask my family and friends for yet more help, to understand that I, yet again, cannot do something we had planned or I had promised.  I turn to Gd to help with my needs, and feel nothing.  My needs are many . . .

Nor is it simple to adjust to having a child, or any family member, with a mental health issue.  As parents, especially, we have a vision for our child (he will go straight to college and grad school; she will become a doctor or president chas v’shalom!).  And when our beloved kinder does not grow that way we had hoped, the way we had anticipated — well, we love our child no less,  but to say there is no loss, would be ingenuous.  As is said in the mental health community, we parent, we love, we accept the child, or the relative, or the self, we have. . .

Perhaps the Motzi can teach us about this blessing.  It is true, in some fundamental way, that Gd gives us bread, even though humans must do much of the work to create it.  The Motzi reminds to see Gd’s hand, Gd’s blessing, not just in the miracle of the fruit on the tree, but also in every step that we are privileged to join with Gd in making bread.  We thank Gd for the seeds.  We are blessed to have sun and soil and water that helps grains to grow — and we might be reminded to be grateful to those who labor to grow and harvest those grains as well.  Can we feel the blessing when someone we love toils to make us bread?  What about our thanks to those we do NOT know, who work to put bread on our tables?  They, too, are made in Gd’s image — and are part of those we need to appreciate when we make Motzi.  The blessing over bread, our most basic food, reminds us that Gd and humans work together to make the stuff of life.

And thus, this morning blessing.  שעשה לי כול צרכי Gd who makes for me, provides for me, all that I need.  Well, not, obviously, without help.  Aside from needing one another to put food on our tables, we need each other to flourish in life.  This is especially true for those of us who live with mental illness — our own or someone in our families.  Our journeys can be difficult and we might can feel alone, lonely — we may struggle, and may feel  as though Gd has abandoned us.  Provide for all I need?  I can barely get through the day!!

There are those, in fact, who understand this blessing differently: it is not Blessed are You . . . Who provides for all my needs, but rather Who provides my needs.  That is to say, Gd created me and my needs.  This means my needs are part of a Divine plan of sorts, part of Gd’s Divine Providence (however one may understand that, and I find it murky, at best).  My needs are holy, part of my being made in Gd’s image.  Instead of pushing my needs to the side so that I can be a better person, so that I can be more like Gd, it is in my very neediness that I am most human.  And thus, it may well be that it is in our most vulnerable states – when we are sad, when we are ill, when we feel furthest away from the Holy One – that Gd may be closest to us, seeing our needs, and providing for us.

Gd, however, is not a magician. Gd will not appear to us as to Moshe, as the burning bush, or a great voice at Sinai.  Perhaps not even as to Eliyahu, in that still small voice — which is hard to hear in times of trouble.  Rather, Gd may be present, may be tending to our needs, as Gd is present in our bread — in the seeds of hope around us, and in the labors of love — not just of those we know, but of countless, unseen others.  If we can begin to accept each person for who we are — created in Gd’s image, whether hurting or helping, we can begin to see that perhaps, indeed, G-d has given us the resources to cope with life as it is.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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