Near and Far

The very structure of the normal Jewish blessing formula (Barukh Atah…) reflects the tension of recognizing and responding to God's immanence and transcendance.

The six Hebrew words that begin a traditional Jewish b’rakhah (blessing), “Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe…” are used throughout Jewish liturgy, for the mundane (“…who creates the fruit of the tree”) to the sublime (“who blesses Israel with peace”) to the cosmic (“who creates the heavenly lights”). How can the same words introduce our acknowledgement of God in such varied settings? Sperber points out that the tension of recognizing God as close, intimate, and personal as well as all-powerful and beyond comprehension is reflected in those very same six words.

What’s so special about the b’rakha? Our sages exhort us to recite 100 b’rakhot (plural) every day, without exception. About 35,000 recitations of b’rakhot every year, each and every one involving the same introductory formula: “Barukh Atah YHWH (the unpronounced Name replaced by the word “Adonai” when spoken), Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam. . .”–“Blessed are You, YHWH (the Name replaced by the word “Lord”), our God, King of the world. . .” Indeed we say it so many times that it rolls right off the tongue without a second thought (even for those few of us who occasionally fall short of the 100 per day mark). Yet surely the sages thought it more than just a mere “Hi, how ya doin'” to dictate such an emphasis on this six-word formula. Funny thing about repeating a profoundly important concept 100 times a day–it gets easier with time. Take, for example, that staple of married life, “I love you.” This, too, I submit, is more than a mere “Hi, how are you?'”

 

“I love you.” Two individuals exist in relationship (love) to one another. In my own marriage, the individuals are specific: “I love you, Tova.” She has a name. Were I to use more dramatic, poetic phrasing, as would Shakespeare (or Yoda), I might say: “Beloved are you, Tova.” My presence is implied: “Beloved [to me] are you, Tova.” When we search for a phrase with more intensity, and specifically when we seek to express an element of gratitude, “I love you” might become “I worship you.” Here “worship” is preceded by, and predicated on, love. It is worth noting that while I have adopted the most common translation, “blessed”, for “barukh,” the word is quite nuanced and carries added connotations, such as “praised,” “appreciated,” and “admired.”

And there it is. “Blessed [to me] are you, YHWH” is a poetic organization of the basic idea: “I bless You, YHWH.” As in the phrase “I worship you,” our blessing for God flows from our love for God. We bless God precisely because we love God. Again, two individuals are established in relationship to one another. In the language of philosopher Martin Buber, these persons are “I” and “Thou.” Or as contemporary philosopher Neil Gillman describes, God interacts with us in a way that allows us to see God in our image. God allows us to see God as Person. This deceptively simple three-word phrase that we repeat 100 times a day insists that we and God exist in a loving relationship to one another, just as do a married couple, and we praise God as an expression of gratitude, growing out of that love.

“Blessed are You, YHWH.” We say it whenever we chance to encounter God in the course of our day. When we eat a piece of fruit that we perceive God prepared for us, we pause to comment “Bless you, God. Thank You.” When I eat a lunch my wife has prepared for me, I pause to comment, “You are wonderful. Thank you. I really love you.” Of course I am also happily acknowledging the converse, that she must really love me. The recitation of this formula both acknowledges and creates, even helps maintain our relationships. We make sure to say it because if we cease to say it, it may indeed fade. It seems no big deal to say; it flows off the tongue without a second thought, but go too long without saying it and the relationship suffers and fades. True in our day to day interpersonal relationships; true in our personal relationship with God.

But here there is more. This close, “immanent,” relationship between us and God encapsulated in the phrase “Baruch Atah YHWH,” is only the first half of the formula. The second half conveys another aspect of our understanding of and relationship with God wholly incompatible with the first. “Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam,” “Our God, King of the world.” This is not the spouse who exists in overwhelming bi-directional interpersonal relationship with me. This is the Almighty. At the command of this fearsome Ruler, the foundations of the Earth itself tremble. Gone is the second-person immanence of “Blessed are You,” replaced with the third person transcendence of the Supreme King, the God. Untouchable, unknowable, and all powerful, a personal relationship with this Force is unthinkable. A benevolent dictator, perhaps, but a dictator nevertheless. When I partake of my pear, I do not whisper to my bride, “I bless You, beloved Provider,” but rather shout from a distance, “Long live the King!” It’s crazy to think that this Ruler would even notice me: “Oh God, what is man that You should know him, son of mortals that You should take note of him?” (Ps. 144:3)

“Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam.” Our God, the Divine Monarch, Ruling the entire world. The phrase connotes an immovable Being with unchecked power. At God’s impulse, natural wonders and historical events large and small come to pass. We can only despair of having any influence.

This relationship stands in sharp contrast to Buber’s “I” and “Thou.” Indeed, for Buber, this relationship is between “I” and “It.” Its relationship to me is different. It does not love me. It rules over me, It may even be indifferent toward me, but It is not in love with me. It is a Rock. It is an Island. It is God. Before this conceptualization of God I do not experience sheltering protection but rather fear and trembling. I am powerless before the throne of the King and can only throw myself on the mercy of the court. Indeed, such images abound in the liturgical poetry inspired by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Gillman’s terminology, “God is Power.” Of course we need to know that God fills this role for us as well. We need a Judge, a Ruler, a Warrior, a Creator. This, for example, is the God who leads us into battle, unleashing that formidable power. It nevertheless remains an inescapably frightening image. Even so, this sovereign God is forever in relationship with us, for as we need a Ruler, so too does the Ruler need subjects.

In the b’rakha formula we encounter two irreconcilable conceptualizations of God. Surely we must choose between them. But our tradition comes to teach us that challenging though it is, we must hold and consider both of these ideas simultaneously, rejecting neither. At some times one or the other dominates. Thus on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is “the King, sitting on the glorious and awesome throne.” On Shabbat, God is our “neighbor,” and our “beloved soulmate.” But 100 times every day we recite this six-word formula that insists that God is both.

It is worth noting that there are times when our b’rakha formula is shortened, particularly when a series of b’rakhot are lined up in the liturgy, as in the Amidah. In such series of b’rakhot, the formula is truncated such that “Barukh Atah YHWH” appears alone. “Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam” never does. Wherever “Eloheinu Melech ha-olam” appears in a b’rakha formula, it is always accompanied by the I-Thou relationship of the “Barukh Atah YHWH.” The importance of this observation is difficult to overstate. Ultimately it suggests that for Judaism, the balance between the opposing imagery is subtly tilted in favor of the loving personal God. Though God is unadulterated Power, the reminder that God is also Person is never far away.

It is reasonable and indeed important to ask, “What’s so special about the b’rakha? Why does Jewish tradition suggest that we must find reason to invoke this formula, with its contradictory theological ideas, 35,000 times a year? What does it teach us?” One answer is that by emphasizing that God is our special Friend, Lover, and Spouse while at one and the same time being an impossibly distant and powerful Ruler, we underscore two versions of ourselves: humble and insignificant (“I am but dust and ashes”) yet valued and important (“For me was the world created”). We use this six-word formula at every opportunity because its fundamental truth about the world and our place in it–a precariously balanced mixture of confidence and insecurity–takes a lifetime to understand and bears repeating at every opportunity.

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