A hallmark of the Jewish experience is the myriad of brachos intertwined into the fabric of daily living. From the moment we wake up (Al N’tilas Yadayim) until the moment we fall asleep (HaMapil), we make brachah after brachah on every imaginable aspect of our lives. Before and after eating, throughout davening, even after going to the bathroom. Every milestone of life is accompanied by a unique brachah, as well: from the birth of a child, potentially followed by bris milah and pidyon ha’ben, and subsequently to mark marriage and even death. Life’s milestones are marked and uplifted through brachos.
In order to understand the importance of brachos, we must first explore the nature of brachos in general. The common translation of a brachah’s opening, “Baruch atah, Hashem,” is “Blessed are You, Hashem.” What does this mean? Can Hashem, the infinite and perfect God, benefit from our blessings? More generally, what is the nature and purpose of a brachah?
Blessings and Curses
In order to understand brachos, we must also understand klalos – curses. In this week’s parshah, Parshas Balak, Bilaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jewish People. When attempting to do so, he declares elaborate blessings instead. It is clear that brachos reflect a positive force and curses signify the opposite effect, but we must delve deeper in an attempt to understand their profound spiritual nature.
Brachah: From Oneness to Twoness
The foundation of any discussion of brachos requires an understanding of Hashem, specifically in how He relates to the physical world. Hashem is infinite – beyond physicality, unconfined by time or space. He is not within this world, nor is He a being; the world, and being itself, is within Him. Hashem is absolute oneness, not constructed of any pieces or parts, containing absolutely no finitude or multiplicity. Our finite and physical world, on the other hand, exists in a realm of time and space, of multiplicity, made up of things, containing pieces and parts.
What, then, connects Hashem to this world? How does Hashem, transcendent and infinite, connect to, and manifest within, our finite world? The answer is: through brachah – the flow of abundance and multiplicity that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. Brachah represents the flow of transition between infinite oneness and particulate “twoness” – where Hashem’s divine energy – shefa – flows into this world. Thus, brachah represents tosefes v’ribuy – the flow of abundance and multiplicity that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. [As we will soon elaborate, our brachos are directly related to this process.]
Brachah: The Word of Twoness
There is an enigmatic midrash that states that the letter beis was chosen out of all the 22 letters of the alef-beis to begin the Torah (B’reishis). This midrash explains Hashem’s decision to do so by declaring that the letter beis stands for the word brachah. Many commentators, including the Ibn Ezra, struggled to understand this bizarre explanation. After all, the letter beis stands for many bad things as well!
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 34) explains this midrash in a profound and beautiful fashion. Beis doesn’t “stand” for the word brachah; it is the letter of brachah. Beis represents the letter of twoness and multiplicity; brachah represents the word of twoness and multiplicity. Every letter in the word “baruch” – the root (shoresh) of the word brachah – is a letter of multiplicity. Beis has the numerical value of 2, the letter chaf has the value of 20, and the letter reish has the value of 200. Amazingly, these are all the letters of twoness. The reason behind this is beautiful and yet so simple: Brachah itself is the very idea of twoness, of taking the oneness of Hashem and expressing it into the world in the form of twoness, of tosefes v’ribuy.
This is why the Torah begins with the letter beis. The Torah itself is a physical array of finite words, all of which are a loyal reflection and emanation of Hashem’s wisdom and absolute oneness. Furthermore, the Torah begins by describing Hashem’s creation of the physical world, a process most appropriately encapsulated by the letter beis – the letter of twoness that stems from oneness. The letter beis reflects the process of Hashem’s oneness becoming expressed into our physical world. This is in stark contrast to the Aseres HaDibros, which begins with an alef. While the episode of creation reflects the finite expression of multiplicity that stems from oneness, Matan Torah was the exact opposite: the elevation and ascension from twoness to oneness, an absolute unparalleled experience of truth, oneness, and the transcendent spiritual dimensions of reality. It was an experience of Hashem Himself, and therefore began with the letter of oneness and transcendence – alef.
Receiving brachah means receiving Hashem’s goodness and expression into this world. The Ramchal explains in great length (Daas T’vunos 46) that Hashem created this world for the sole purpose of giving us brachah. He translates brachah as goodness, shefa (spiritual energy), and light. In other words, brachah is Hashem’s expression and revelation into this world.
At this point, we need to create an important distinction. There is a fundamental difference between twoness that is connected to oneness and spirituality – which we will refer to as brachah – and twoness that is purely physical and disconnected from spirituality. Detached and disconnected twoness is lifeless, purposeless, and dead. Twoness that is connected to oneness is a physicality that is pumping with vibrancy, always expanding beyond what appear to be its limits and borders. Such physicality is always amplified and constantly expanding, abundant, and connected to a higher source. This is a physicality rooted in brachah, fully connected back to its spiritual root.
When we recite brachos 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 brachah. The first, as Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad HaKemach – Brachah) explains, is to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all blessing, abundance, and goodness in the world. This is a meditation of hakaras ha’tov – recognition of the good – and sourcing all multiplicity and brachah back to its source. In essence, when we make a brachah, we are recognizing Hashem as the source of all brachah.
Our second intention, as the Rashba (Sh’eilos u’T’shuvos 5:51), the Vilna Gaon, and the Nefesh HaChaim (2:2, 10) explain, is asking Hashem to continue to abundantly manifest into this world, and into my personal life. In other words, the first step is recognition and connecting back to Hashem – our source; and the second step is an exercise of will, attempting to bring Hashem into this world and asking Hashem to manifest abundantly, both into the world in general, and into my life specifically.
Klalos: Curses of Limitation
Klalos (curses) can be understood as the exact opposite of brachah. If brachah 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. Brachah represents outflow and endless abundance, while klalah represents a limitation of that abundance and endlessness into something finite and limited. If used correctly, the midah (characteristic) of klalah can actually be constructive and positive. When the use of limitations is implemented only in order to help make the brachah useful and real, the klalah itself ends up becoming part of the brachah. For instance, too much rain can result in flooding. A limitation on rain, to enable a healthy amount of water, is actually a necessary and productive form of limitation. The problem is when klalah is used for the purpose of destroying brachah, and preventing any brachah from manifesting.
From Klalah to Brachah
We can now see Bilaam’s intentions through new eyes. He attempted to curse klal Yisrael, cutting off their spiritual connection with Hashem. In response, Hashem didn’t only negate Bilaam’s curses, thwarting his plans. Hashem turned those very curses into brachos, strengthening the connection between Hashem and klal Yisrael, and reinforcing the channel of brachah that flows from Hashem into this world.
Living a Life
Our mission is to use the physical world as a medium through which we connect back to Hashem. We no longer see reality with a clear lens. But that gives us a unique opportunity: to create light within the darkness – to use our free will, to choose to see Hashem. We don’t only ask for brachah, we create it by choosing to see Hashem’s presence flowing into every aspect of our lives. May we be inspired to live lives full of brachah, sourcing every dimension of our lives back to Hashem, and living a life of oneness within the realm of twoness.