Count Your Blessings
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
Walking into a supermarket, you are assaulted by the smell of fresh fruit piled on a stand in the entryway, by the cool draft of the air-conditioning, so refreshing after the hot expanse of the parking lot on a summer day, and by the sight of the colorful flags and banners waving across the aisles. Tantalizing aromas waft towards you from the Chinese food stand in the hot foods section. Dozens of other minute sensory strokes vie for your pleasure. Do these experiences inspire you?
Most of us would say no. Physical pleasures might excite us, but they do not usually inspire us. Inspiration, like a deep breath of fresh air, fills us with awe, energy, and vitality. We are motivated to go beyond ourselves. The impossible becomes possible. When inspired, we rise to the occasion. That’s how the tough get going. But most of us don’t experience that at the supermarket.
Golden inspiration is priceless and hard to come by. If we could figure out how to turn mundane pleasures into sublime inspiration, we would be like alchemists. Our lives would be endlessly enriched. We could accomplish more, be great, and feel great. We could rise to the occasion so much more.
During our daily grind, profound moments of spiritual connectedness can seem out of our reach. But are they? Torah says no. Powerful inspiration is all around us if only we take a moment to plug ourselves in. It isn’t hard to do. Just count your blessings. Literally.
Self-Gratification or Relationship?
Inspiration isn’t easy to come by, but water is. A cup of coffee, an apple, or a bag of potato chips aren’t hard to find.
The Hebrew word bracha means blessing. Jews recite blessings before eating, smelling certain pleasant fragrances, and before many activities. But what is a bracha? How is the practice of brachos designed to enhance our lives?
No, Jews do not sprinkle holy water over their apples. A bracha is simply a reminder that the world was created to benefit us. It’s a very simple idea, but it can be life-changing: God created the whole world in order to shower us with good.
We are not used to thinking this way. In fact, sometimes it seems as though the whole world is conspiring against us. News agencies rack in thousands of dollars a day touting dramatic disaster. Pseudo-academic types earn their reputation in wordy criticism. Prestige is bought at the high price of superiority. High school students climb the ladder of popularity by stepping on those beneath them. Our governments, social circles, and sometimes even friends and family can be indifferent to our difficulties.
However, Torah explains that the many trials and travails of life – including high school – take place only to frame and enable a heroic journey of growth, love, and achievement. The substance of real joy is meaningful accomplishment. Our broken world gives that opportunity aplenty.
How do we remember that we are living in a world of noble opportunity rather than empty hardship? What’s the gas for persevering when life knocks you down?
Well, just walk into the supermarket. But this time a little differently.
A World Without Chocolate
You can wolf down an apple mindlessly, swirling the sweet, tart juices around your mouth and enjoying the satisfying crunch without a second thought. Or you can use the pleasure, the unique and extraordinary experience of apple, as a bridge to connect with a bigger picture. You can turn the mundane gratification of feeding yourself into an experience of relationship with the divine.
How? Hold the bright green Granny Smith in your right hand and say out loud, “Baruch Atah Hashem, Elokaynu, Melech HaOlam, boreh pri ha’etz, You are blessed, Hashem, our God, Master of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the tree.”
The words start out very intimately. We speak to God in first person and by name: You, Hashem. You are blessed. That quality known as blessing? You’re all about it. In fact, You embody it. Blessing comes from You, is an expression of You, and is our way of connecting with You. I acknowledge that my experience of this apple is going to be pleasurable, and that pleasure will be an expression of Your blessedness.
In the second part of the bracha, we distance ourselves a little bit. All that touchy-feely stuff is very nice, but let’s remember Who we are dealing with: our God, Master of the Universe. There is an ultimate authority. Everything we think, say and do will be accounted for one day. Why? Because we count. Our thoughts, speech, and deeds matter. We are on a heroic journey and will be called to task for it.
In the words of the football greats, this part of every bracha asks the fundamental question, “How ya doin’ out there, buddy?”
Part three brings it all together: You are…creator of the fruit of the tree. We are accountable, but we are accountable in a game that is set in our favor. The same God who is the Master of the Universe is also the God who created apples. Not just the universal concept of apple, but this fragrant, rotund little pleasure sitting right in the palm of your hand.
Now take a bite. Apple. Mmm. He made this one just for you. He also made you chocolate. Dawn. The ocean. Your face. Stars. Zebras…
Imagine the difference: one girl finds a bouquet of fresh flowers strewn near the trashcan in the hallway of her apartment building. Another girl is handed a bouquet of fresh flowers by her husband. That’s the difference between eating without a bracha and eating with a bracha. The practice of brachos turns pleasure into inspiration by making pleasure personal.
But the bracha mindset doesn’t just enhance your enjoyment of life, it is what makes it possible to enjoy life at all. When all your physical pleasures are experienced in the context of divine love and mission, it’s hard to fall into the materialism trap. Eating and being sated are beautiful things when they contribute to a relationship with God. The irony is that when material things become an end in and of themselves, they aren’t even pleasurable anymore.
It’s so common that it has become a stereotype: the miserable rich kid. One gorgeous car just makes him want another. An exquisite meal satisfies for a short time but then just aggravates the craving for more. The Vilna Gaon says that trying to gouge oneself on material pleasures is like drinking saltwater. World War II was over, but many American soldiers marooned in the Pacific didn’t make it back. The saltwater they drank only made them more thirsty. Dehydrated by the salt, the soldiers passed away within days.
Without the bracha mentality, material pleasures are nothing but a dangerous tease. The committed materialist guns for more – and more! – until the boredom, stress, and overuse becomes fatal. What then?
In high contrast, the inspiration and clarity of a relationship with God does not fade with time or use.
The blessings spoken or sung after a meal are called Birkas HaMazon. The first paragraph was composed by Moshe (Moses) himself:
And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless Hashem, your God, for the good land He has given you. (Devarim-Deuteronomy 8:10)
Allow yourself to experience blessing. Eat, be sated, connect with the Creator – and become inspired.