> Judaism 101 > Mitzvot > Prayer and Blessings

Lively Introduction to Blessings

May 9, 2009 | by Avi Geller

Showing gratitude for all God's goodness.

A chassid once asked Rebbe Elimelech the following question, regarding the famous statement of our sages: "How is it possible to bless God for bad news with equal fervor as for good news?"

"Go to the study hall" replied the Rebbe," and ask your question to my brother, the saintly Reb Zusia."

When the chassid laid his eyes on Reb Zusia, he could easily imagine the suffering this man must have experienced in his lifetime. The pain of illness and poverty were etched on his face. The chassid proceeded to ask: "How is it possible to bless God for bad news with equal fervor as for good news?"

Reb Zusia's reply: "Why are you asking me? How do I know the answer? Nothing bad has ever happened to me!"

The meaning behind the story is that the effect of events entirely depends on one's perspective. Reb Zusia considered himself so grateful for every moment of life, that any misfortune was "small potatoes" as far as he was concerned.

This reminds me of the joke about the lady who constantly complained about everything, including her daughter-in-law who frivolously spends her son's hard earned money. "He has to bring her breakfast in bed and take her out to eat all the time!" Yet on the other hand, this woman is full of praise for her "wonderful son-in-law" who brings her daughter breakfast in bed and takes her out to eat!

It's all a question of perspective.

Pain or Pleasure?

When people are asked whether mankind is experiencing more pain or pleasure at any given moment, the majority will say pain. Although, objectively there is infinitely more pleasure, such as enough to eat, comfortable bed, sunshine -- not to mention eyes that see and legs that mobilize -- most people take these things for granted. We have a tendency to focus on pain -- e.g. "I have a headache!" (Which somehow magically disappears when accompanied by a toothache!)

Instead of focusing on the pleasure, he focuses on the pain!

Have you ever been on a guided tour where one person is constantly complaining - "I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, I'm tired, I'm cold…" Instead of focusing on the interesting sites (the pleasure), he focuses on the pain!

If we want pleasure in this world (and who doesn't?!), we must learn how to focus on the good. Pirkei Avot states, "Who is a rich person? One who is happy with his lot." If you want what you have, you will always have what you want. If however, you want what you don't have, you'll never have what you want! You will spend your entire life trying to "keep up with the Cohenses!"

100 Blessings a Day

The Jewish people have a tool to help focus constantly on the pleasures that surround us: We recite 100 blessings each day. We remind ourselves 100 times a day that God is the source of all our pleasures, both physical and spiritual.

The Kuzari, a classical Jewish philosophy book containing a dialogue between a king and a Jewish sage, based on a true story, records the following conversation:

"The thing that adds pleasure upon pleasure is reciting a blessing on your food before partaking of it," claimed the sage. In other words, the blessing makes the food taste better!

The king had a hard time internalizing that concept, so the sage gave an analogy: "if a cow is eating grass and a baby is drinking a bottle, who enjoys it more?" Probably the baby. A connoisseur enjoying a gourmet meal is obviously in a different bracket. The question is how much our minds are involved in the act.

Let's look at a contrasting example. Someone dead drunk can eat the best food and partake of the best drinks while listening to the best music -- and yet not enjoy it at all. This is so even though his taste buds and ears are functioning perfectly, but since his mind is missing the event, he is not experiencing the pleasure. Only by focusing with our minds, and acknowledging that all pleasures are from God, can every taste and smell, every evening and every morning, provide the maximum pleasure.

Appreciating Gifts

In Judaism, the morning blessings are all stated in the negative. We thank God for giving eyesight to the blind, lifting up the bent, dressing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, etc. Why do we not refer to these same phenomena in a positive manner -- i.e. has made me free, gives me eyesight, etc.?

And by the way, when was the last time you heard of a blind person's eyesight being restored? Quite a rare event to be referred to every morning by millions of Jews!

The answer is that the sages wanted us to appreciate the gifts of eyesight, freedom, etc., by contrasting them with a situation of lack. If a doctor could make a blind person see or a deaf person hear, how grateful he would be for an entire lifetime! So too must we have gratitude to our Creator.

A Jew wakes up in the morning and begins appreciating all his gifts.

There is a song with these words, "Every morning I open up all my presents, I always knew they were there, but never knew what they were for!" A Jew wakes up in the morning and begins appreciating all the gifts he was given.

Focusing on the pleasure instead of the pain is a very powerful tool that can change one's attitude to living in general. People who commit suicide focus solely on the pain. If you can succeed in making them appreciate their pleasures, you might succeed in preventing a suicide.

God and Parents

In the days of the Soviet Union, children were taught atheism at a very young age. "Pray to God for a candy," the teacher would tell them. When no candy emerged, she would conclude, "Prayer doesn't work. So now ask the teacher for a candy."

At this point the teacher would distribute candies to the entire class. "God has no place in your life. But Socialism does!"

Of course the children were not sophisticated enough to ask, "Where did the candies come from," to which she would have replied, "the fruit grows on the trees and the sugar in the ground."

"Oh, you mean from God?!"

One of the most important mitzvot (actually one of the Ten Commandments), based on gratitude: "Honor your parents." Even if one had lousy parents, at least they brought him into the world, changed his diapers, bought him food and toys and sent him to school, as well as staying up with him when he was ill and taking him to the doctor. If one cannot feel gratitude to parents, how is it possible to feel gratitude to God Who gives us life and everything in it? Serving God is based on gratitude.

Some Basic Blessings

1) Partaking of Food and Drink: There are specific blessings for bread, grain products, wine, fruits and vegetables. There is also a general blessing "He makes everything by His word," which is recited on foods that are not in the above categories (e.g. milk, meat, fish, etc.). Although praising God that He made "everything" would seem be a greater praise, precedence goes to the most specific blessing because that focuses us more clearly on how God is giving me this pleasure.

Blessings enhance our perception of the experiences we constantly enjoy.

2) Smell, Sight and Hearing: Smelling spices, seeing lightening or a rainbow, hearing thunder and good news all require blessings. These enhance our perception of the experiences we constantly enjoy. One example: Upon seeing a fruit tree blossom in the springtime, we say: "Blessed is God that does not lack anything in His world, and has created beautiful creations and beautiful trees, for people to enjoy!"

3) Physical Needs: Every time we use the toilet, even if only one drop comes out, we recite a blessing thanking the Almighty for the wonders of the human body and the wisdom it demonstrates. "Who has created humans with wisdom, with openings and hollow parts, revealed before Your holy throne, that if any part of the body was to malfunction (the open parts close or vise-versa), it would be impossible for us to exist and stand before You even for a short time. You cure all flesh and perform wonders!"

4) Life Itself: When one eats a seasonal fruit for the first time, or performs a mitzvah for the first time in a year, he thanks the Almighty for another year of life. This is the She'he'chiyanu blessing: "Who has kept us alive and let us exist to reach this season." Think of all the people who ate peaches and plums and lit the menorah last year, who are no longer with us...

Blessings are a tool which enable us to appreciate all of life's gifts and have gratitude to our Creator. Focusing on what we have, not what we lack, is the most fundamental ingredient to a happy life. L'Chaim!

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