Sivan: Life of All the Worlds
Rabbi Nancy Flam
This Shmita year has inspired many of us to think harder about land, farming, ownership and how we justly feed ourselves and one another.
It also happens to be the year in which I finally learned by heart a lesser known Jewish blessing said after eating certain foods.
I love the way Rabbinic Judaism teaches us to bless both before and after we eat and drink. But it’s not just the two blessings, one before and one after, that I appreciate, it’s that we have many varieties of each. That is, rather than having a simple, generic blessing for gratitude before we eat, and another generic one for gratitude afterwards, the blessings before and after both depend on exactly what it is we’re eating. A meal with bread requires “the Motzi” before and the four traditional blessings of Birkat HaMazon after. But a meal without bread requires something different before and after depending on what we’re eating (and further, one thing if the meal includes grain products made from wheat, barely, rye, oats or spelt and another if constituted by, say, rice and vegetables). It can all feel quite complicated. I once downloaded a few “bracha” apps to help me keep it all straight, because, though not a halachik Jew, I find it a meaningful mindfulness practice to notice just what it is I’m eating or drinking, and to be specific about the words of blessing that will help me cultivate gratitude for the very nourishment I’m ingesting.
I learned the new blessing at a two-week mindfulness meditation retreat I attended in the hills of Northern California. For two weeks, I built my concentration and practiced mindfulness of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc. as they presented themselves to my awareness moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day. Those of you who engage in retreat practice know that the mind can grow quite still and aware of great subtlety (which then can lead to great insight). With so little “going on” by way of external input, meals on retreat provide a strong hit of stimulation: color and shape, smell, taste, desire, aversion, and all manner of none-too-subtle thought. (“Kale again? What were they thinking?” “I’m going to be protein-starved.” “Why can’t they make this dish every day?”) They are also excellent times to practice gratitude, as there is plenty of time to notice what you are about to eat, to eat it mindfully, and to bless afterwards. I blessed not only for every meal of those fourteen days, but also for every snack I ate, most of which required a blessing afterwards called “Borei Nefashot” and it goes like this:
Blessed are You YHVH, our God, Ruler of the world, who creates numerous living beings and their deficiencies, for all that You have created with which to sustain the life of every living thing. Blessed is the Life of all the Worlds.
I fell completely in love with this blessing (not your usual retreat crush). The traditional commentators have much to say about this blessing, like how the first part “with their deficiencies” refers to bread and water, which are simply the necessary basics for life, whereas “all that You have created” refers to the non-essential, additional and quite pleasurable foods we enjoy, as well (Tosafot, Berakhot 37a). But I didn’t know the commentaries when I fell in love with the blessing. I had discovered my own meanings.
I was moved that we were to bless God for creating numerous living beings and their deficiencies. What a counterintuitive sensibility for a blessing. It’s so great, God, that you created us all with an unrelenting need to eat, without which doing we become cranky, reactive, weak, malnourished or worse! It’s so great that when we are fortunate enough to fulfill this need, it only lasts a few hours and then we are faced with our need again! Well, such a contemplation does surely lead to humility, as well as to insight. Because if we really tune into this “deficiency,” if we really contemplate this “lack” with which we (and all living things) are all created, we understand the fundamental interdependence of all life. Not a single living thing exists on its own. Not the birds I watched those weeks from the lunch bench quickly diving their beaks into the grass for bugs. Not the deer I saw on my morning mindfulness walks releasing the life-spark of sun-soaked grasses into their digestive systems. Not the mountain lions I’d been warned might be in wait for me in the high hills (along with deer ticks, which evidently might enliven themselves from me, too). A rural mindfulness retreat turns out to be a great place to contemplate “numerous living beings and their deficiencies.”
If the first part of the bracha leads to humility, the second part leads to gratitude. Not only, God, did You create all life with lacks that need to be satisfied, You created other forms of life with which those deficiencies might be filled, every species of plant and animal life relying on the consumption of other life forms to give them life. (Though evolutionary biologists might explain this in their own way, it takes none of the mystery away for me.) What a world you created, God, or what worlds upon worlds: You, who are the Life of all the Worlds (Chei HaOlamim): animal, mineral, vegetable, worlds we can see and understand, and others we can only intuit and imagine.
So in this Shmita year which has us consider large societal systems of food, land, production, ownership, and the restoration of justice so all basic human food needs might be filled, I want as well to take my contemplation down from time to time this season to something like one perfect stalk of asparagus grown in nearby Hadley, Massachusetts (where it’s rumored the Queen of England orders hers); bless “Creator of the fruits of the earth” before I eat; consider the life-force within this very green; chew, taste and swallow; and then thank God for mysteriously making numerous beings and their deficiencies, and for all that God created to sustain the life of each in turn.