We tend to appreciate the basic gifts of life only after they are threatened. As long as we remain in good health, we go about our daily lives, not paying much attention to what is happening internally. In that state, we might view something as mundane as going to the bathroom as just a nuisance. That changed a few years ago when I had to undergo a hernia operation. Thankfully, the surgery went well but the surgeon wouldn’t release me from the hospital until I moved my bowels. Sorry to be so graphic, but when I was finally able to do so, I began to think about and appreciate my digestive system. It may sound silly, but I remember how going to the bathroom, at least for the next few weeks, made me happy to be alive. But a month later that awareness, and the appreciation which came with it, started to wane. I became conditioned to going to the bathroom and once again I took my body for granted – except when I thought about the words in the post-bathroom blessing that I have been saying since I was a child. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-to-say-the-asher-yatzar-blessing/). Reciting that blessing reminded me of the miracle that was still taking place in my body. That is the power of saying a blessing – it enables us to appreciate life, even when things, thank God, going well.
As we sit down to celebrate another Thanksgiving this year, I would like to highlight this ancient Jewish device to express gratitude. Referred to as birchot hanehenim or “blessings over pleasure”, the Jewish Sages ordained different blessings – depending on what one is consuming – to be said immediately before eating. Before eating fruit, for example, the blessing of “God who creates the fruit of the trees” is said or before eating a vegetable we recite “God who creates the fruit of the ground.” The reason we recite these words is not to bless God but to ensure that the person – about to enjoy something from the physical world – acknowledges its source. The Hebrew word for blessing – bracha – is related to the Hebrew word beraicha which means spring. Just as a spring serves as the source of water, by saying a blessing we acknowledge God as the source of whatever physical pleasure we are about to enjoy. This is key for two reasons, one spiritual and one psychological. Spiritually, by acknowledging the source of whatever food we are about to enjoy, we use the food for its intended purpose: to be connected to our Creator and to reveal His presence behind everything in the physical world. Remember, God could have created us in any way. He could have designed us without the need for food. We are created with this need to help us develop a relationship with God – no different than a child whose relationship with their mother or father starts with the food and other necessities the parent gives them. The food also serves as a reminder that God is behind everything in the physical world, but that only happens if we acknowledge Him as such.
Psychologically, reciting blessings allows us to become aware of something we previously ignored. The more conscious we are of those gifts – be it food or the health of our bodies, the happier those blessings can make us. Studies demonstrate that grateful people – those appreciative of the blessings they already possess – are more content and happier people. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis, based on his own studies, found that gratitude lowers blood pressure, improves immune function, and facilitates more efficient sleep. Gratitude is also associated with lifestyle changes including exercise, improvements in nutrition and diet, being less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and taking medications appropriately. “Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret, and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Emmons said. Gratitude also plays a role in overcoming traumatic stress disorder. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans who felt and expressed gratitude regularly correlated with lower levels of PTSD. The study also found that gratitude correlated with a range of well-being factors for veterans.
Uttering a few simple words over a piece of fruit, or any food item can make us aware of the beautiful part of our reality we may otherwise neglect. Finding joy in the blessings we already have is imperative. It allows us to appreciate what we have in our lives right now, and less on what we might receive if something else great happens to us. The more appreciative we become of what we have today, the less we will have to rely on reaching all our goals to find happiness.
For those of us who tend to live from high to high, finding fulfillment only in reaching our life goals, blessings are vital to appreciating the wonderful experiences along the way. As my musical icon, John Lennon wrote in one of his songs: “Life’s what happens to you while you’re making other plans”. If we can’t find joy every day, in the process necessary to make our dreams a reality, then our reality will be a dreary one. We will place way too much pressure on achieving our goals since so much of our happiness is wrapped up in achieving them. We’re also more likely to realize our goals when we find some joy along the way.
And so, this Thanksgiving, before popping that first piece of Turkey into your mouth, say a blessing: Baruch ata Adonoy Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam Shehakol Nihiyeh Bidvaro. “Blessed Are You O’ God, King of the Universe, Who Creates Everything By His Word.”
The above idea is taken from Rabbi Mark Wildes’s “Beyond the Instant: Jewish Wisdom for Lasting Happiness in a Fast-Paced, Social Media World” (Skyhorse 2018). https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Instant-Lasting-Happiness-Fast-Paced-ebook/dp/B073YFNVHB