Sunday, May 23, 2010
The Beauty of Berachos
About a year ago, I met with a very fine and intelligent person who was of traditional upbringing, and had recently joined Orthodoxy via a Hasidic sect. He was unhappy with certain aspects of this sect's worldview, and wanted to explore how Rationalist Judaism measured up against the version of Orthodoxy that he was involved with. In the course of the discussion, one of the topics that came up was berachos on food. I told him that berachos on food serve to enhance and express our appreciation for it.
The person was quite taken aback to hear that. After all, the hassidic view was that making berachos serves to elevate and liberate the sparks of divine energy that are embedded in all matter and enable it to exist. I guess that compared to that, the idea that I was presenting sounded rather trivial, and not very Jewish. It certainly seemed revolutionary.
Now, I agree that I have a greater appreciation of food than most people. My mother brought me up with the stern message that it is a sin to be disrespectful of food. I have an extremely high metabolism, and going without food for a long period is very difficult for me. And I've actually met the starving children in Africa.
Still, I think that the idea of berachos as enhancing and expressing our appreciation for food is a very, very powerful idea. And I don't think that it's a medieval Greco-Muslim-rationalist-influenced spin on Judaism, but rather the straightforward and traditional understanding of berachos. Food keeps us alive, through the incredible intricacies of the body's functioning - the more one learns about the scientific aspects of that, the more there is to be amazed at. In addition, food tastes good and is enjoyable to consume. What's more, you and I eat better than 99.9999% of the humans to have ever existed. Just think about what you would eat if you lived 500 years ago! Isn't it great to be obligated to consciously appreciate all that, rather than to eat like a mindless automaton? I remember once listening to a very frum person speak with disgust about the food that he was eating. But wasn't he about to thank Hashem and praise Him for it? If we are going to take berachos seriously, this forces us to appreciate the benefits of the food that we eat rather than complain about what it isn't.
Berachos are a beautiful and powerful mitzvah. They are about appreciating the good in life. Isn't that enough?