Last week I spent four days studying Jewish texts about nature with 30 other rabbis. The gathering was organized by Oraita, a study program for rabbis sponsored by the [Boston] Hebrew College and its rabbinical school.
One of the texts we explored was the Zohar’s commentary on Psalm 104, the soaring biblical paean to God’s creation, and how nature and its wonders are witness, mediator and messenger of God’s majesty. (Our teacher on this text was Melila Hellner-Eshed, a gifted scholar of the Zohar.) We could have spent the entire four days on this psalm alone, not just delving into it as a transporting biblical text but as a new way of looking at our spiritual relationship with the physical world.
This is something I hope to do over the course of the summer, and may be inclined to share some insights I glean with you.
For now, here is one I find captivating. Like most good insights, it takes some work to get there, so I am hoping you will stay with me til the end and find that it was worth the journey.
If you ever wondered where our bread blessing, hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz (Blessed are you God, who brings forth bread from the earth) comes from, it is from here, Psalm 104: 14. “God causes the grazings to grow for the cattle, and grasses in response to the labor of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth.”
As we all know, bread does not spring forth ready-made from the earth. Rather, we classically explain the surreal imagery of this blessing as an acknowledgement of the exquisite God/human partnership that yields both the fruits for human survival and the majesty of civilization. That is, God’s creation provides the raw material, and human ingenuity transforms it into the stuff of our lives.
But the kabbalists allow us to take this one step further. At least, they inspired in me the following thoughts:
In verse 29 we read: “When you hide your face, God, people are troubled: when you take away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.” Or so the more literal reading would have it.
To the kabbalists, this verse reads more like this: “When you are displeased with us, God, when the world stands before you in judgment, You turn your face away and the supernal flow of life-giving forces is unable to reach us. We are troubled. Our breath is taken from us, and we are like someone who has died (in a state of impurity). What is the solution? What is the remedy? For us to reconnect with the dust, with the earth, the stuff and substance of your primordial creation and the possessor of its purifying powers.”
Now that is quite a handful to unpack and quite a handful to grasp. But bottom line, the kabbalists seem to be saying that the most fundamental and essential products of God’s physical creation - the earth and its soil - are also the most elemental conveyors of God’s spiritual sustenance and healing.
So when we find ourselves distanced from God, or suffering from spiritual malaise, we should reconnect with things earthy, the essence of creation.
That, it seems to me, is a hidden message in the odd image of our blessing over bread: “who brings forth bread from the earth, ha-motzi lehem min ha’aretz”. In kabbalistic imagery, motzi, “bring forth,” is a word that indicates the unimpeded flow of supernal life-giving forces from the most distant of heavens to the most present of earthly realities . Bread, lehem, is more than baked dough, more than the physical staff of life. It represents all nourishment, material and spiritual, that comes from God and sustains humanity. And aretz, land, is the life-giving, renewing stuff of creation.
So when we recite the blessing over bread, we are both thanking God for the partnership that allows us to weave the grasses of the earth into the breadbasket of civilization. And we are thanking God for the constant reminder of spiritual renewal present in the most fundamental of earth’s elements, the land.