Monday, January 18, 2010

Soulblessing, part 2: The Partnership

"Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz", the ubiquitous Jewish blessing is a bit of a conundrum. We acknowledge God, our Lord, king of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth. God brings forth BREAD from the earth? If anything, God brings forth wheat, grain, anything natural, but bread? Bread involves human production, a lot of it in fact! The Mishna lists the eleven events necessary to turn earth into our smorgasbord--
1. Sowing (seeding)
2. Choresh - Plowing
3. Reaping (cutting)
4. Gathering (bundling sheaves)
5. Threshing
6. Zoreh - Winnowing
7. Selecting, separating)
8. Grinding
9. Sifting
10. Kneading
11. Baking

How then do we recite the blessing as if God Himself sends us bread from the earth like manna from heavens? The answer relates to a fundamental Jewish notion of existence: We are not bystanders in God's world. The film called 'life' is not about its creator but His creations! I have heard in the name of Rav Soloveitchik that Judaism is theo-centric but anthropo-oriented. This means that while God should be in our consciousness at all times, the real story is about mankind and the way in which we as people interact, develop and ultimately join together with our creator to make the world He made for us, that much better.

This idea is illustrated in the famous story in the Midrash:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are better? Those of God or those
of humans?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better." Turnus Rufus asked,"Behold the heaven and the earth. Can you make anything more beautiful than them?"

He answered, "Do not tell me about something that is higher than human capabilities, since
humans are unable to do these things, but let us compare things which humans are capable of."

Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "I knew that
you were asking about something like that, and for that reason I told you at the start that men's deeds are greater than those of God."

Rabbi Akiva then brought to Turnus Rufus two items: stalks of wheat and baked rolls. Rabbi
Akiva said, "These [the stalks of wheat] are the deeds of God, and these [the baked rolls]
are the deeds of humans. Are these [baked rolls] not more beautiful?" (YALKUT 546, par. "Uveyom")

It is quite significant that Rabbi Akiva uses the rolls as the the example of the joint venture between man and God. Psalm 104 describes man's acknowledgement of God, of His creation, of His sustaining life through nature. But halfway through verse 14 a transition takes place where God is not the provider but man. That takes place with the verse 'lehotzi lechem min ha-aretz' that man takes the fruit of the earth and turns it into bread which sustains us and grapes into wine which gives us joy. It is this transition that reminds us of our incredibly important role in the world. Just as God sets up the infrastructure of nature, the eco-systems and all that is needed to survive and thrive, so too, Man takes the baton and adds value, brings emotion, compliments the fruit of the earth with the ingenuity of mankind towards an even nobler ideal.

The psalm in the subsequent verses beautifully describes how we are all supposed to share this beautiful world in a state of equilibrium: nature does its work constantly; the animals emerge in the night; Man goes out to work in the day; the sea has an entire world within it, living together side by side; "all turn to God for sustenance, all are provided by His light and warmth (and all shudder at God's hidden face).

"yehi chevod hashem leolam, yismach hashem bemaasav"
May God's glory permeate for eternity and may He rejoice in His creations.