Expressing Reality

The Torah reading of Eikev, is often read near the 20th of Av, the yahrzeit of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, a towering sage and Kabbalist who was an active communal rabbi in Russia during the darkest years of Stalinist oppression.

Once, as part of the census, the Russian government sent out a questionnaire asking several queries of its citizens. Among the questions was: “Do you believe in G‑d?”

Many Jews were inclined to answer in the negative because they feared government suspicion and losing their jobs. However, when the Rebbe’s father learned of this, he gave an impassioned sermon, explaining that denying belief in G‑d was equivalent to heresy. No matter the risk, every Jew was obligated to answer affirmatively.

Among his listeners was a government employee whose wife had already filled out the census form for him, stating that he did not believe. The words of the Rebbe’s father motivated him so powerfully that he went to the census office and asked the government to correct the form. He wanted to be listed as a believer.

Later, when the Rebbe’s father was arrested, his interrogators asked him how he had dared to make such statements. He answered that his words were totally in support of the government. “Jews inherently believe in G‑d,” he told his questioners. “I was merely encouraging them to tell the truth and not lie to the government.

Are Blessings Superficial?

This Torah reading contains the verse: “What does G‑d, your L‑rd, ask of you? Only to fear G‑d … to walk in His ways and to love Him.”1 Our sages interpret the quote non-literally, noting that the Hebrew word מה, translated as “what,” resembles the word מאה, meaning one hundred. In this vein, the verse implies that G‑d desires one hundred from the Jewish people. One hundred what? One hundred blessings.2 This is the source for the injunction for each person to recite one hundred blessings every day.

On the surface, the simple meaning of the verse and our Sages’ rendering of it are worlds apart. The verse is telling us to have an active emotional relationship with G‑d — to love Him and fear Him and seek to emulate His ways — while our Sages are speaking of a ritual obligation to recite blessings and to make sure that we recite one hundred of these blessings each day.

When looking deeper, however, we can appreciate that our Sages are not nullifying the verse’s simple meaning with their interpretation. They provide a vehicle for us to internalize and apply the charge communicated by the verse in our daily lives.

Recognizing G‑d’s Involvement

To fear and love G‑d and follow His path are noble virtues. How can a person make these virtues actual factors in his life and not merely ideals to which he is striving? By reciting one hundred blessings a day.

To explain: Our Sages state, “It is forbidden to benefit from this world without reciting a blessing.”3 Maimonides writes: “Our Sages instituted many blessings as expressions of praise and thanks to G‑d and as a means of petition so that we will always remember the Creator.”4

When a person recites a blessing before eating, he makes — or at least has the opportunity to make — a fundamental acknowledgement of G‑d’s presence in his life. Ordinarily, a person eats without thinking of how the food got here or why it got here. It’s a very simple, basic deed. We eat because we’re hungry, without thinking of anything more.

Our Sages tell us to act differently, to take a moment before eating to think and contemplate the inner spiritual dynamic that takes place when we eat. To quote this week’s Torah reading: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that emerges from the mouth of G‑d.”5 The verse is explaining that the food a person eats exists because G‑d invested His energy in it through the medium of speech. Just as G‑d spoke and created the world at the beginning of creation, so too, at every moment, He is bringing the world into existence through His speech.

When a person eats, he is deriving his vitality not from the physical matter of the food alone, but from the G‑dly life spark invested in the food. By reciting a blessing over food, praising G‑d shehakol nihyah bidvaro, “that everything was created with His speech,” the person is taking note of that process.

Similarly, when a person relieves himself, he recites a blessing, acknowledging the infinite wisdom that went into the creation of the human body. When he sees a lightning bolt or hears thunder, he recites a blessing, clarifying that what appears part of the natural order is really an expression of G‑dliness. And in his prayers, when he petitions G‑d for his livelihood, he is acknowledging that his success is not a result of his own endeavors alone, but depends on G‑d’s blessings.

In a similar way, all the blessings we recite are intended to make the awareness of G‑d part of our operative consciousness, and in this way spur our love and fear of Him.

Maamar Ve'ata Yisroel 5727, and fn. 24 there.