The interactive Brit/covenant between God and the Jewish People is the foundation of the Jewish religion and energizer of Israel’s survival. Every time Jews repeat a rabbinic blessing we acknowledge that spiritual reality.
The standard beginning of almost all Jewish blessings is: ‘Barukh attah Adonai’—‘Blessed are You’ which is difficult to render into English because it seems absurd for tiny humans to “bless” the God who created the whole universe. So this shocking phrase had to be rendered into English as “praised.”
The normal phrase in the Hebrew Bible is ‘Barukh Adonai asher—Bless God who . . .’. Barukh attah Adonai appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible; but this is the phrase that our Rabbis made normative for their liturgy, because of its more interactive connotations.
This phrase is very difficult to render in idiomatic English—“Be praised”? That misses the crucial attah. “Praised be You”. ‘Blessed be You’ or ‘We bless you’ are better, especially the last phrase because it points to interactive reciprocity.
The term “barukh” was employed in early rabbinic tradition by those who understood “barkhu et Adonai ham’vorakh” (Mishnah Tamid 5:1) to be one aspect of a mutual “gifting” between God and Israel: to God, Israel (the collective) gives words of acknowledgement and gratitude, and God gives Israel all kinds of enrichment and challenge [for example the blessing said when hearing about the death of someone you know].
To be sure, there are places in Scripture where “b’rakhah” literally means “gift”. And there is not another word in Scripture – that is generally used for “praise” – for example, from the roots h-l-l, or sh-b-h, or g-d-l, or p-‘-r – that God “does” to us AND that we “do” to God.
It is this “reciprocation,” this mutual gifting, in the context of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God that makes God “barukh,” “gifted,” if you will, by Israel with words of praise, even as God “gifts” Israel with the “fruit of the vine,” and all the other things mentioned at the end of our various prayers. That’s part of the covenantal relationship, the interactive Brit/covenant between God and the Jewish People.
Only in the Hebrew Scripture are humans not only blessed by God, but even able to bring benefit to God in some unknowable way, with our own words. To bless the Lord is to bring God a verbal gift: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” (Psalm 51:15) in response for “You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips.” (Psalm 21:2)
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser points to an amazing statement in Talmud B’rachot 7a: “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha [a rabbi who was also a High Priest] says: “I once entered the innermost part of the Temple to offer incense and had a vision of The Crowned God, Adonai of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne; who said to me: ‘Ishmael, My son, bless Me [barcheini]!’
I replied: ‘May it be Your will that Your compassion overcome Your anger. May Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes. May You deal with Your children compassionately. May You not judge us solely with strict justice!’ And God nodded to me.”
We learn from this that the blessing of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly. If God says that God wants to be blessed by “us little human beings,” who am I to correct God? To me, this is a great example of rabbinic Judaism’s “audacious humility” (or is it “humble audacity”?) — we Jews claim the right to improve upon God’s creation; and even to improve God’s reputation by submitting ourselves to God’s will.
I agree with him, and I’ll stick with “Blessed are You…”