Blessings are a portal to the Infinite. They are the utterances and sentiments shared by us and our ancestors for thousands of years.
In the Torah, blessings are seen as a conduit for spiritual and physical potential. God blesses Adam and Eve to fill the world, Abraham is called a blessing for all his descendants, Jacob steals the first-born blessing and alters his future, the high priests bless the nation with an ever-expanding relationship with peace. The list goes on and on.
Indeed, the Talmud (Ta’anit 8b) teaches: “A blessing is found only in an object that is hidden [samui] from the eye,” suggesting that the power of blessings are found in that which is not seen, in meta-reality behind what is readily observable.
The Hebrew word for blessing, bracha, shares the same letters as the word for pool (b’raycha), hinting that when one offers a blessing, we are actually gathering energy and unlocking a life-source. It also shares a root with the word for kneel (nivrachah), intimating that blessings help us lean into that which we are blessing, focusing our gravity in one place so we can gather our energy for what has arrived and what has yet to come.
The melodies and rhythms of Jewish blessings have served as the cultural glue for Jewish daily practice for thousands of years. There are blessings over food and drink, upon leaving the bathroom, before going to sleep and during life cycle events. Jews who pray three times a day recite dozens of blessings.
The Talmud (Menachot 43b) states that each person is obligated to recite 100 blessings each day, suggesting that the way to live connected to the Divine is through living a life immersed in blessings, in gratitude. This is so important to the Jewish tradition that the sages wrote (Brachot 35a) that it is forbidden to benefit from the world without making a blessing. It could be said that the value placed on blessings is central to all of Jewish life.
And yet, with the human condition tending toward forgetfulness, it’s easy for the recitation of blessings to become rote. How then can we make blessings transformative rather than transactional? One idea is to take three seconds before making a blessing to meditate on our own voice within the blessing, to find within it that which is meaningful to us — in essence, to become the blessing.
The holiday of Tu Bishvat is a time when this kind of spiritual consciousness around blessings becomes much more accessible. The Tu Bishvat seder, a mystical practice still observed today, is replete with blessings for the Jewish new year of trees, a time when we make many blessings on the Divine creations of the world and connect to the destiny of trees, food and nature in our lives.
The seder originated in Tzfat, in northern Israel, on a mountain of mystics who pined to deepen and innovate the way we approach blessings and prayer. It makes sense that they would compile a series of blessings reflecting the unlocked spiritual potential of vines, trees, fruits and plants.
Given the holiday’s emphasis on the power of blessings, it is apropos to close with a blessing:
May it be the will of the Universe that we are able to harness the opportunity to contemplate the power and purpose of Jewish blessings and the role our voice plays within the blessing itself, improving our ability to focus while unlocking the unknown potential of that which is within and around us.
Isaiah Rothstein is the rabbi in residence at the Jewish environmental organization Hazon and the founder of the Union Street Sanctuary in Brooklyn. He is the co-author of Hazon’s Tu Bishvat Haggadah, available for download here.