Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
August 24, 2019

Last week at Kiddish we were privileged to celebrate our anniversary with you. Yesterday was our official anniversary. Today we celebrate the auf ruf of new members to our community. We are truly blessed here. At Jews and Brews last week, I shared texts about Tu B’Av. It is a lesser known Jewish holiday, when historically young women would dress in white, go into the fields and announce that they were looking for a spouse. Men would follow them--be warned to look at their characters and not their beauty and marriages would soon follow. Tractate Ta’anit teaches that Tu B’Av is almost the antonym, the antidote to Tisha B’Av. While Tisha B’Av was a day of mourning remembering many losses in our tradition, Tu B’Av, celebrates triumphs in our history. Yet it is not a day that is oft observed. It has no special feasts, no special blessings other than omitting Tachanun in the daily worship. Today we read words about blessing, about gratitude and thankfulness. As we celebrate an auf ruf today, my thoughts are on how we bring blessing not just to a single day, but to every day. The not-so-secret is in this week’s parsha, Ekev.

In the very first aliyah we learn:
Chapter 8, vs 10 10 “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.”
” וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-י--ה-ו--ה אֱ--לֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

Last year at this time, I spoke about one minor change we made here. We added the Birkat Hamazon after EVERY Shabbat meal. Giving thanks is imperative to our mission at CBI. It is central to our vision of a holy community. It allows us to do everything else that we do. If we do not express our gratitude at the appropriate times, we are not just stealing from Gd, as our tradition teaches, but stealing from ourselves!

In studying this verse, I found a commentary from Rabbenu Bachya. Living in 13th century Spain, he wrote extensively on the Torah, including the contextual meaning, philosophy, mysticism and aggadah. Our teacher Bachya the son of Asher has several pages on this verse. I would like to share only a couple brief selections this morning.

He opens:
וברכת את ה’ אלו-היך, “you will bless the Lord your G’d.” According to the plain meaning of the text Moses means that when you reflect on the painful periods of your history, the sufferings you experienced in the land of Egypt, and you also look back on the discomforts experienced during your long trek through the desert, you will be inspired to bless the Lord as soon as you will enjoy eating the produce of this land. You will include the food of the land in your blessing of the Lord… https://www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.8.10?lang=en&with=Rabbeinu%20Bahya&lang2=en

From Rabbenu Bachya, we learn that the grace after meals is a connection to our history. Our past sufferings should make us all the more aware of our current privielge. They should teach us that we must be grateful for all that we have--since we could just as easily be in far more difficult circumstances. Whether we use the biblical narratives or more recent history, we know the tremendous ups and downs of Jewish history. It is truly miraculous that we are so fortunate today. If we recognize our good fortune regularly, we feel differently. We are more open to helping others. We are happier.

Rabbenu Bachya wonders how we can bless Gd? Shouldn’t Gd be blessing us?
This verse contains a clue to the whole mystical dimension of the concept that man “blesses” the Lord. The whole idea of the creature blessing the Creator instead of vice versa is somewhat strange. We do not find any other place in the whole Torah except here where G’d commands us to “bless” His name. This is the verse which prompted David to say in Psalms 145,1 “and I will bless Your Name.” He also said הודו לו ברכו שמו, “give thanks to Him, bless His Name” (Psalms 100,4). We find many similar quotes in the Book of Psalms.

He notes that this is the only place in the Torah, although there are some references in the Psalms to humans blessing Gd. In a longer selection, he reminds us of the Temple. He notes that GD did not NEED our sacrifices, but appreciated them, regardless.

A kabbalistic approach: the commandment “you shall bless the Lord your G’d,” means that this blessing is neither exclusively for the benefit of the person reciting it, nor is it exclusively an expression of gratitude; rather it is a formula depicting something additional, natural increase, etc., as we know from Exodus 23,25 וברך את לחמך ואת מימיך, “and He will bless your bread and your water.” [The assumption being that G’d will provide additional food and water. Ed.]

From a mystical perspective, we discover that when we bless Gd, we are also blessing ourselves. I think to Avenue Q “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself!” Reciting these blessings, sharing our support with others, is not only self-serving, but many discover that when we give, we also receive. Making a difference in someone else’s life rarely leaves us untouched. Rabbenu Bachya concludes his thinking about this verse:

The sages said also that G’d is desirous of the prayer of the righteous. If the meaning of the word blessing and prayer only referred to man thanking the Lord, why would G’d be interested specifically in the prayers of the relatively few righteous people instead of His desiring everybody’s prayer? Do we not have a principle that the glory of the king is expressed by the adulation of multitudes (Proverbs 14,28)? Clearly the very word ברכה implies that the one bestowing it adds an additional dimension to the recipient of the blessing. This is why in our prayers we mention the words תתברך ותתרומם, “be blessed and (as a result) be elevated, our King, etc.” This is also the reason for the wording in the Kaddish: יתברך וישתבח ויתפאר ויתרומם ויתנשא, “Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, proclaimed in His majesty, etc.” In addition we find that the word ברך, knee, describes the One before Whom each knee bends, i.e. the word ברכה, blessing is directly related to a motion with his knees by the one proclaiming the blessing (compare Sefer Habahir item 4).

He notes that the spelling of blessing and knee in Hebrew are virtually identical-- connecting a physicality to blessing--bending our knees. When we make the spiritual, physical, we also find greater blessing in our lives. Our physical actions have a direct link to our souls, our spiritual actions. This is why the act of putting on a tallit or Tefillin can be so powerful. These actions allow us to feel in our bodies what we feel in our souls. As we open our prayerbooks for Musaf, let us lift our bodies and our soul with our prayers.

Photo from JTA at Hebrew College