As I mentioned in last week’s blog, April has been a very busy month for me. One of the events I attended was a celebration of my liberation – and that of many others – from Bergen-Belsen and the nightmares of the Holocaust, by soldiers from the American Army’s 30th Division. The meeting was in Nashville, Tennessee. Thirteen of the liberating soldiers showed up (with an average age of 92), as did three thankful and considerably younger survivors. The addition of second and third generation relatives of liberators and survivors that were no longer with us brought the total to around 60. The survivors were all Jewish, but none of the liberators were. During the closing banquet, one of the veterans read a short Christian religious blessing; I was in charge of delivering the Jewish one. I decided to give two short blessings: one for the food and one commemorating the dead – both soldiers and victims. I am not a religious guy so I had to prepare. In my preparation I ran into some background of the Jewish food blessing, which essentially says that since all of the world’s resources belong to God, we must say a blessing and get God’s permission when we eat. My immediate thought was that if this is the case, every activity that we conduct using world’s resources merits the same treatment. More than that, the religious authorities that construct the prayer books need to learn the consequences of giving permission to use the physical environment. My second thought was that I am certainly not an expert on this issue, and should approach somebody a bit more qualified.
Fortunately, Denis Ladyzhensky is a student in our Physics Department and is taking my course on Physics and Society. He is also an orthodox Jew. I approached him with my thoughts and asked him to write a guest blog on the topic. Here is the result.
What are blessings in Judaism? What purpose do they serve? How can we apply their wisdom to extracting and using fossil fuels from the earth?
Blessings appear in biblical scripture Deuteronomy 8:10, where it states, “you will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless the Lord, your God for the land that is good that He gave to you.”
And scripture continues:
…be careful for yourself lest you forget the Lord, your God by not observing his commandments, his ordinances, and his decrees, which I command you today; lest you eat and you are satisfied, and houses that are good you build and you live and your cattle and your flocks increase, and silver and gold increase for you, and everything that is yours increase and haughty will your heart be and you will forget the Lord, your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery. Who leads you through the wilderness that is great and awesome and with snake, fiery serpent, and scorpion, and thirst where there was no water—who brings forth for you water from the rock of flint. Who feeds you manna in the wilderness, which not know did your forefathers in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to benefit you in your end. And you may say in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand made for me this wealth! Then you shall remember the Lord, your God for it is he who gives you strength to make wealth in order to establish his covenant that he swore to your forefathers as it is this day. It shall be that if you should in any way forget the Lord, your God and you should go after the gods of others, and you should worship them and you should bow to them – I testify against you today that you will certainly be destroyed, like the nations that the Lord destroys from before you, so will you be destroyed because you will not have listened to the voice of the Lord, your God. Deuteronomy 8:10-20
If we analyze this passage, we can begin to see what kind of commandments these are: God first commands that we are obligated to bless Him for feeling satisfied. Obviously God, who is infinite and omnipotent, does not require our blessings; indeed, one could ask what possible use is there in mere mortals blessing God? What follows is a warning against forgetting Him and becoming materialistic and arrogant. This is not merely good advice; rather, it is a deep psychological insight into humanity. Here we have a step by step breakdown from human being to an arrogant idol worshipper who is worthy of destruction: it begins by forgetting the commandments and forgetting God. Next comes forgetting all of the favors God did for the individual, like taking him out of slavery in Egypt, giving him water from a rock and feeding him food (manna) that appeared miraculously like dew on the ground every morning for forty years. After having fallen so low in gratitude a person will soon come to declare that in fact it is his own great strength that has given him his wealth, thereby excluding the Creator’s role in his success. Finally he will become an idol worshipper who is deserving of capital punishment.
Therefore we have been given the greatest guarantee possible – a divine promise that simply by blessing God, we are defeating a powerful and mysterious human tendency for arrogance and self-worship.
This alone would not necessarily help us in trying to apply this thinking to humility in the extraction of natural resources, especially since this section in particular only applies to blessings made after one eats to satiation. But where can we find a scriptural source for performing blessings before eating? The answer is that there is no known scriptural source for blessings before eating food. In fact, the way we know to say these special blessings is from a logical Talmudic argument found in the tractate Brachot known as “if this then [certainly] this.” This argument is used in the following way: if we have to make blessings [appreciate the source] when we are already full then isn’t it obvious that we need to make blessings [appreciate the source] when we are hungry? On the merit of this argument, which no holy Talmudic Rabbi could defeat, a variety of blessings were created to be said by all persons before partaking of any enjoyable matter in this world. These blessings apply to all foods and drinks as well as smells and they are required for special phenomena and events. Halalchipedia has a full list of different kinds of blessings one makes for different occasions.
ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מן הארץ
This Hebrew text is a blessing for bread, but what it says it actually quite surprising. Reading from right to left it says, “Blessed are you the Lord, our God, King of the world who took bread out from the Earth.” Maybe we can say that the first part is self-explanatory, acknowledging that God is the source of blessing and the master of the world. But the second part requires some more serious explanation: how did God take the bread out of the Earth? Making bread requires taking wheat, grinding it to flour, making dough, and baking it – only through numerous steps does it become bread. Whole loaves of bread do not grow directly from the ground on stems. What the authors of these blessings wanted to impart on us is that each of those intermediary steps was through God. Even when we were cutting the wheat, it was God helping us. When we were making the dough it was through God’s help, and when it was baked into the perfect final product it was all God’s will all the time.
What about something that a person simply does not make a blessing on, like extracting precious minerals and fuels from the Earth? In that case, he or she is making a valuable income, but since through that comes the danger of becoming very arrogant, shouldn’t they be warned? I would like to elaborate on this question in the following way. What if we incorporate the use of blessings and rely on rabbinical authority as arbitrator between the Earth’s resources and humans? In other words, before someone is allowed to extract the Earth’s goods, there must first be an ordained spiritual leader who advises on issues of gratitude and environmental responsibility. This seems like an idealistic solution which would perhaps only work in a utopian society where we could control all external influences from affecting the arbitrator. Consider that in a field where the needs of the many compete against the needs of the few and those in power are few in number, it is wise to empower the humblest and most prudent decision makers. Everybody would agree to that — except for those in the select group which already wields that power. Unfortunately it is often an individual’s cunning and extravagance which wins him favor from others. Power today is rarely given to someone based upon his spiritual status.
So we don’t have a blessing to say in our scenario. One possible solution that I would like to suggest is the following. The Torah (Hebrew Bible) does not delineate every possible phenomenon or event for which a person might need to say a blessing. Rather, it chooses those which are most common, the reason being that if a person is preoccupied with being thankful to God throughout the day, that mindset will extend into everything the individual does. That might be part of the reason why King David, who was king of Israel and the compiler of the Tehillim (Psalms) required the nation to recite 100 blessings a day. Click here and skip to Page 13 for a list of how to say 100 blessings a day. When contemplating the consequences of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, saying blessings is only the beginning. We also require the ability to project the outcome of our actions into the future. When we eat something that we like, we make a blessing in the hopes that we will be able to eat it again in the future as well. No one wants their favorite fruit to disappear the next year. But if we don’t make a blessing, the Rabbis teach us that it is as if we stole from God. If we consume something without gratitude we are actually causing a shortage in that thing. I would argue that in our society today where corporations and sovereign nations ignore warning signs and expert advice on climate change, we are doing that same thing on a much larger scale: exemplifying a renegade disregard for the collaborative good; not making enough effort to frontline the planet’s wellbeing.
Perhaps here the natural law is resisting the haughty actions of the few, violating natural calm and increasing threats of extreme weather. So let us conclude that positive change does not elude us. Going carbon negative is a short-term goal and becoming carbon neutral is within our grasp if we want it to be. Being sufficiently grateful for what we have attained as a society, and appreciating what we have inherited from thousands of years of ancestral sweat, blood and tears is probably impossible. But the task of preserving it so that our grandchildren don’t inherit a self-imploding natural disaster is in our hands, dependent on our minds, and within our reach. Just like there are no implied limits to our gratitude, so there should be no limits to creating things that our children will be grateful for. Amongst those things which I think future generations will certainly appreciate are a clean and healthy ecosystem, a plethora of vibrant species with tremendous diversity and a human living condition which contributes to the good in the earth without depleting it. Do you think we will deplete the Earth and have to deal with an ever more combative and hostile environment, or do you think we can embrace humility and gratitude, thereby slowly reversing our course towards sustainability and mutual respect between human and Earth?
Denis Ladyzhensky is a Brooklyn College Undergraduate student graduating with a B.A. in Physics. He spent five years studying Talmudic law and the Hebrew Bible in Jerusalem. He hopes to get a professional degree in electrical engineering and to one day work on projects that improve life for everyone.