In our previous article, we began exploring the concept of beracha (blessing). We explained that beracha represents the transition from infinite oneness to particular twoness – the process by which Hashem’s divine energy (shefa) flows into this world. When we recite berachos and say “Baruch atah Hashem,” we are not blessing Hashem. Hashem, infinite and perfect, does not need our blessings. Rather, there are two simultaneous intentions that we must have when making a beracha. The first, as Rabbeinu Bachya explains, is to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all blessing, abundance, and goodness in the world (Rabbeinu Bachya, Kad Hakemach, Beracha). This is a meditation of hakaras hatov and a practice of sourcing all multiplicity and beracha back to its source. Our second intention, as the Rashba (Shu”t HaRashba 5:51), Vilna Gaon, and Nefesh HaChaim (Nefesh HaChaim 2:2, 2:10) explain, is asking Hashem to continue to abundantly manifest into this world and into my personal life.
Bending the Knee
Hakaras hatov, recognizing Hashem as the source of the good in your life, is an essential component of berachos. Only when we negate our egos and acknowledge that the goodness and beracha in our lives comes not from our own independent efforts but from Hashem, can we then receive more beracha. As the Nefesh HaChaim explains, by recognizing Hashem as your source, you transform yourself into a vessel capable of receiving more of the very beracha that you acknowledged. This is because Hashem can only flow into the space you allow for Him. In essence, you are recognizing Hashem as the source of beracha, appreciating Him, connecting yourself to Him, and then continuing to bring His flow of goodness back down into your life!
This deep idea is illustrated in the famous story in Neviim of Elisha’s visit with Ovadiah’s destitute widow, (Melachim II, chap. 4). Elisha instructed her to gather as many vessels as she could find so that she could pour oil into them. Miraculously, the oil kept flowing into them; but as soon as she ran out of vessels, the oil stopped flowing. This oil was a beracha from Hashem; it therefore flowed from an infinite source and would continue to flow as long as there was a vessel to receive it. The same is true regarding all beracha and shefa from Hashem; Hashem flows into the space that we make for Him in our lives.
Perhaps this is why we bend our knees in Shemoneh Esreh (Amidah/daily prayer) specifically when saying the word Baruch at the beginning and end of the first beracha and at the end of Modim – the beracha of thanksgiving. As humans, we are proud, capable, and intelligent. Chazal identify our tall, vertical stature as one of the two key characteristics that differentiate our physical appearance from that of animals. Our spine represents our stature, but it also represents our ego. Bowing down means recognizing Hashem as the ultimate source of our existence and the limits of our independent power. In Hebrew, the word “berech” (knee) shares the same root as the word “beracha”. One form of negating our ego is by bending our knee, thus, lowering our height and stature. The very means by which we receive beracha is by bending our berech, thus creating space for Hashem to flow into our lives.
There is a deeper idea here as well. Bending the knee represents the process of expressing twoness from oneness. When standing erect, the leg is one continuous limb. When we bend our knee, we take that oneness and bend it into two. This is a process we undertake as we become aware of the beracha that Hashem infuses into our lives.
Stealing from Hashem
This understanding of beracha also sheds light on a famous Gemara (Berachos 35a). The Gemara states that if one fails to make a beracha before taking pleasure (hana’ah) from this physical world, it is as if he stole from Hashem. The Gemara then points out a contradictory source: “The heavens are for Hashem, while the land He gave to man” (Tehillim 115:16), which seems to imply that man is permitted to use the physical world freely. The Gemara solves this contradiction by stating: Man is stealing from Hashem only when he does not make a beracha beforehand; however, once he makes a beracha, it is no longer stealing. The question then is: What fundamentally changes when we make a beracha?
The simple answer is that a beracha is the means through which we “ask permission” from Hashem to use His world. Once we do so, we are allowed to partake in it, because it is as if He gave us permission to do so. However, there is a much deeper layer here. The entire world stems from, and therefore belongs to, Hashem. Without a beracha, one fails to source him or herself, and the world as a whole, back to its root, i.e., Hashem. In doing so, it is as if one is saying that Hashem is not connected to this world. The spiritual concept of stealing is the act of taking an item away from its rightful owner and place. If one proclaims through his actions that the physical world is not fully connected to Hashem, he is essentially stealing from Hashem, removing the world from its rightful owner and place. However, in making a beracha, you are connecting both yourself and this physical world to Hashem – our rightful source – and the issue of stealing is resolved.
Klalos: Curses of Limitation
Klalos (curses) are the exact opposite of beracha. If beracha is the overflowing and boundless expression of goodness and shefa into this world, klalah represents the limitation and constriction of Hashem’s flow into this world, replacing abundance with boundaries and restriction. A curse is the attempt to limit Hashem’s manifestation and presence in this world.
It is important to note that while the concept of klalah is often perceived as inherently negative, this does not have to be the case. Beracha represents outflow and endless abundance, while klalah represents a limitation of that abundance. If used correctly, the middah of klalah can actually be constructive. When the use of limitations is implemented only in order to help make the beracha useful and real, the klalah itself ends up becoming part of the beracha. For instance, too much rain results in flooding. A limitation on rain, resulting in a proper amount of water, is a necessary and productive form of limitation. The problem is when klalah is used for the purpose of destroying beracha and preventing any beracha from manifesting.
Beracha vs. Klalah
The Gemara (Taanis 8b) states: “Ein ha’beracha mitzuyah ela b’davar ha’samui min ha’ayin – Beracha (abundance) occurs only in that which is hidden from the eye.” The logic behind this cryptic statement is profound. When something is not yet seen by the physical eye, it can be anything. The potential is limitless; Hashem can make it into anything. However, once the human eye sees it, it becomes fixed as that alone. It is now finite and limited, no longer subject to beracha and potential increase.
When you see something, you immediately give it boundaries and limitations. This is why the gematria of “re’iyah” (seeing) is the same as “gevurah” (limitation and middas ha’din). Something spiritual cannot be seen. A neshama is boundless, containing no boundaries or edges. A body, on the other hand, starts and ends at specific places.
The Gemara (Taanis 8b) illustrates the application of this principle in regards to tefillah. The Gemara says that if you are walking to your grain storage house to count your grain, and you have not yet seen it, you can daven that your grain should be increased. If, however, you have already seen it, you can no longer daven for the increase. Before you give it concrete form, it could be anything; it remains in the world of potential and is still subject to the boundless flow of beracha. Once, however, you give it finite measure, it can be nothing more than what it already is. Davening for additional beracha would be a tefillas shav (prayer in vain).
Bilaam: From Klalah to Beracha
We can now understand Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Jewish People in an entirely new light. Bilaam attempted to curse Klal Yisrael, to cut off their spiritual connection with Hashem. In response, Hashem did more than just negate Bilaam’s curses; He turned these very curses into berachos, strengthening the connection between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, and reinforcing the channel of beracha that flows from Hashem into this world.
The Historical Shift: From Light to Darkness
Returning to our original question, why were berachos [as we know them] only instituted at the time of the second Beis HaMikdash? The answer is as follows: There are two stages of history.
The first stage lasted from creation until the time period of Purim and Chanukah. This stage was highlighted by the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah and the presence of nevuah. During this stage, Hashem’s revelation in this world was apparent and clear. The physical world was naturally seen as an expression of a spiritual reality, and it was easy for one to source the physical back to the spiritual. As a result, institutionalized berachos were unnecessary; when one ate a meal, it was abundantly clear that the food came from a transcendent, spiritual source – Hashem. The same was true for the rest of daily life; spirituality came naturally and spontaneously.
However, with the end of prophecy came the end of this stage as well. We no longer experience miracles; we no longer experience Hashem as openly manifest in the physical world. As a result, Chazal instituted standardized tefillah and berachos for everyone to say throughout the day, the yearly cycle, and the various stages of life. The world has bent; the light has faded. We no longer naturally source ourselves back to Hashem; we need help pointing us in the right direction so that we can achieve this mission. This is the function of the standardized berachos and tefillah; they serve as a guiding path back to Hashem.
Our mission is to use the physical world as a medium through which we connect to Hashem. We no longer see reality with a clear lens. But that gives us a unique opportunity – to create light within the darkness and to use our free will to choose to see Hashem. We don’t only ask for beracha; we create it by actively seeing Hashem’s presence flow into every aspect of our lives. May we be inspired to live lives full of beracha, sourcing every dimension of our lives back to Hashem, and living a life of oneness within this world of twoness.