The Path of Blessing
December 27, 2004
"Jewish tradition teaches that the simple action of a brakha has a cosmic effect, for a brakha causes shefa, the 'abundant flow' of God's love and goodness, to pour into the world. Like a hand on the faucet, each brakha turns on the tap." So writes Rabbi Marcia Prager in an early chapter of The Path of Blessing. In the book that follows, she delves deeply into each word in the standard blessing formulation, exploring what we can learn from the words' context, etymological resonance, and even spelling.
Like most Jews, I learned the traditional blessing form (Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam... -- usually translated as "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, king of the universe," or something along those lines) early, and I'm guilty of dashing through it in a kind of sing-song way so I can get to the meat of the blessing. The first half of a brakha is formulaic, and I usually want to get to the good stuff, the point of the blessing: am I saying a blessing over bread? Over wine? Over lighting candles? Over seeing a rainbow? Blessings exist for every occasion and I think they're a fabulous practice. I just haven't always paid sufficient attention to the traditional blessing-opener, except to to fiddle with it (experimenting with feminized or gender-neutral God-language, with metaphors like Wellspring and Source instead of the dominating Ruler or King). Prager's book makes me realize how much I've been missing when I give those opening words short shrift.
Like leaves and branches growing from a tree trunk, most Hebrew words derive from what is called a root. Just as each leaf must be understood as a part, fed by the roots of the whole tree, individual Hebrew words cannot be fully understood without reference to their whole tree. The root stores all the meanings flowing into each one of the leaves.
That's how Prager introduces her intent to help us study the Hebrew words one at a time, examining what each one is related to and looking to see how those relationships influence what the words say to us. For instance, baruch, "blessed," is related to breikha, "fountain", and berekh, "knee:" what might that tell us about the act of blessing, the flow inherent in the practice, or the emotional/spiritual stance it might require?
The Path of Blessing is peppered with good lines about the nature of learning ("Poor teaching in childhood not only robs us of the desire to explore further, but can leave us unaware that there is a 'further' to explore") and the nature of God ("At best, 'God’…is a job description, far better used as a verb than as a noun.") Reading this book, I reached for a pen after the first couple of pages, wanting to start underlining and making little exclamation points in the margins. Prager packs a lot of great ideas into a seemingly simple text.
Like this one: in the chapter on the word ha-olam, she notes that olam is usually translated as world or universe (space), though when it holds the prepositional letter lamed and becomes the word l'olam we translate it as forever (time). In this way, she notes, the word can mean something like space/time. God isn't merely the ruler of the world, or even all worlds; God is, and operates through, the entirety of the space/time continuum. That shift in translation is a paradigm shift.
Prager devotes a chapter to each of the words in the standard blessing formula, giving each word reverent attention. I plan to reread this a few more times, in hopes that even half of what she teaches here can become part of my consciousness in my own blessing practice.
The latter section of the book focuses on the different ways to end a blessing, offering insights and drashes into how we can see these words and the ideas behind them anew. Since most standard brakhot thank God for sanctifying us (or enabling us to sanctify ourselves) with mitzvot, Prager spends a while exploring the nature of mitzvot. She acknowledges that many non-Orthodox Jews chafe at the notion of "commandments" since we no longer feel connected with God-as-Commander. But after exploring the insights encoded in the central letters of the word, she writes, "The call to take on mitzvot is a call to make a renewed commitment through our own actions to practices revealing the divinity in all Creation." Hm. She's got me, there. "Commandments" don't excite me much, but I can get behind committing myself to right actions which make manifest the holiness of my world.
One of the interesting things about mitzvot, she notes, is that they can't just happen when we're in the mood; they need to be part of an ongoing practice. (Tzedakah/righteous giving, for instance, needs to happen consistently, not just when one's feeling particularly flush.) A regular practice of brakhot exists most fully as part of a larger regular practice of mitzvot.
Peak experiences give us glimpses of clarity and insight, but sustained practice brings them into every facet of our daily lives. Says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev: "There is no greater path than this. For wherever you go and whatever you do -- even mundane activities -- you serve God."
I find that idea tremendously compelling. It reads to me as a variation on the Shaker motto "hands to work, hearts to God." No matter what I'm doing, no matter how boring or profane the task might be, everything can be a sacred endeavor. Reb Zalman, Prager tells us, calls this "domesticating the peak experience," and notes that "domesticate" literally means "to bring into one's home." A regular practice of blessing can help me domesticate the spiritual highs I've experienced on retreat. Given that a frequent criticism leveled against Jewish Renewal is that we're good at retreat-fostered peak experiences but not so good with the followthrough, this part of Prager's book makes me very happy indeed.
I'm amazingly happy to have discovered this book -- indeed, to have found the whole way of thinking about and experiencing Judaism that Prager both reflects and helps to create -- and I have high hopes of taking a class with her next summer if she teaches at Elat Chayyim. I've always loved the fact that blessings aren't something we "say" or "do," but something we "make" -- and Prager's just given me a wealth of new ways to think about brakhot and how they can reshape my relationship with my world. If you're looking for a good Judaic read, or if you want to revitalize your own practice of making blessings, pick this one up.