Birchas Ha-Chamah For Litvaks, or What Happens If It Rains?

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If you made it this far without doing the reading, you are probably not going to get to it before the event. For a quick and easy presentation, try the summary written by the one who wrote the book, mori ve-rabi Rabbi Dovid Bleich, shtlit”a. It appears in the online version of the OU’s Jewish Action Magazine.

To make it even simpler for those pressed for time (and who isn’t today?), I will excerpt it, and include the sections that draw a straight line between Birchas Ha-Chammah and Pesach:

Although the celebration of Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and Birkat haChammah recalls Creation, the two share a singular common motif.

“Chayyav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim—a person is obligated to look upon himself as if he exited from Egypt.” On Pesach a Jew is obligated not simply to recall a historical event but to imagine himself an actual participant in that event. Rambam’s formulation is “Chayyev adam leharot et atzmo—a person is obligated to show himself” as one who departed from Egypt. A fantasy, to be sure. It is difficult enough to enter into a fantasy, yet Rambam requires not only that we enter into the fantasy but that we act it out as well. The essence of the obligation is internalization of long-ago events to the point that they are both intellectually and emotionally no different from personally experienced phenomena. To what purpose? To appreciate the omnipotence of the Deity who made possible the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus. For Rambam, intellectual appreciation is insufficient; it must lead to an emotional experience perceivable to an onlooker.

The greatness and grandeur of God require acknowledgement when His handiwork is actually observed… Phenomena such as the appearance of lightning or meteors and sighting colossal mountains or deep canyons demand acknowledgment of God as “He who makes the work of Creation.”

The essence of Birkat haChammah is the blessing “Oseh ma’aseh bereishit—He who makes the work of Creation.” The formula is identical to that of the berachah pronounced upon visual perception of a giant, an elephant, a monkey, lightning, a meteor, Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon. The blessing, when pronounced on those occasions, is triggered solely by a sensory perception. Birkat haChammah is more than a bit different. … Sighting an elephant is far more exciting than coming upon a barnyard animal; lightning is awe-inspiring in a way in which dark clouds are not; the majesty of God is revealed in the presence of a massive, peaked mountain in a way that it is not revealed in a common range of hills. But what is it that is singular about the sun on the day of Birkat haChammah that requires a human response in the form of a berachah?…It is the occurrence of the vernal equinox on a particular day of the week and at a particular hour of that day that occasions the berachah. …Associating the appearance of the sun at a unique position relative to earth with a particular day of the week and a specific hour of the day requires a great deal of reflection. The blessing recited on the occasion of Birkat haChammah, “He who makes the work of Creation,” is singular among berachot in that it is occasioned by an external event that acquires meaning as a testimonial to God as Creator of the universe only when that event is reflected upon, internalized and understood in a profound manner. Unlike other visual experiences that occasion a blessing, Birkat haChammah is predicated upon intellectual cognition…. Pesach is designed to cause a Jew to reflect upon the miracles surrounding that historical event and come to a personal awareness of God “who brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Birkat haChammah is designed to cause man to reflect upon observed phenomena, to internalize those phenomena and achieve a profound awareness of God as Creator of the universe.

Birkat haChammah coincides with erev Pesach only on the rarest of occasions. When this does happen the appropriate response should be to seize the occasion for intellectual appreciation of the wondrous work of the Almighty that, in turn, must lead to a profound understanding and recognition that He alone is the God of Redemption and the God of Creation.

In other words, we are often asked to respond intellectually to what impresses our senses or our hearts. Both Birchas Ha-Chammah and the Seder night reverse the ordinary course. Our minds first comprehend, and they dictate a response to the hearts. We aren’t impressed through external phenomena, but set out to impress ourselves by study, observation and reflection.

The mind dictating to the heart – sounds to me like a Litvak’s manifesto. (See also what might be the single most beautiful piece in Meshech Chochmah, on mishchu u-kechu lachem tzon.)

What happens if, chas v’shalom, weather conditions are unfavorable in the morning? (As I write this, it is snowing in Detroit, and rain or clouds are predicted for New York and Los Angeles.) Rabbi Bleich’s astute observation can salvage much of the mitzvah for us.

Without taking stock of the awesomeness of Hashem’s beriah, the beracha we hope to recite tomorrow will not mean too much. If we do take stock, we will be left with increased appreciation and love for HKBH, even if we miss the beracha!

Chazal tell us that there was no greater simchah than Simchas Beis Ha-Shoe’vah, on the occasion of the drawing of water for the purpose of using it the next morning for a korban of water on the altar. Many seforim point out that the celebration might have been expected for the completion of the mitzvah, when the water was poured on the mizbe’ach. Why the night before?

One of the answers is that people often gain more from the preparations leading to a mitzvah than from its actual performance. This might easily apply to Birchas Ha-Chammah. Every twenty-eight years, even those with little leaning towards picking up a science book spend a bit of time looking in at solar astronomy – just one area of the beauty and complexity of Hashem’s Creation. Those of us with greater leanings might pick up the copy of Scientific American we’ve been ignoring! I have a weakness for cellular biology – although very much from a layman’s perspective. I get more excited by the ultrastructure of a cell than a magnificent waterfall, although the latter is a close second. Many people, I suspect, could take much inspiration from a single area of the natural law whose understanding changes and becomes richer with the progress of science.

Approaching life like a litvak has its drawbacks, however. I very much want to make the berachah in the morning, and I take comfort from a conversation I had with a very chassidishe friend in shul today. He told me of an incident 28 years ago, that he says is well know in chassidishe circles. The weather in New York was not cooperating. The Pupa Rebbe, zt”l encouraged some Chassidim to look into a flight that would get them above the cloud layer, and allow them to make the beracha. The Satmar Rebbe zt”l opposed the idea, and wouldn’t be moved. The day started out cloudy – but the clouds cleared long enough for people to make the beracha without the help of jet engines.

We don’t have the Satmar Rebbe anymore. But we do have yidden, scurrying about as on no other day, fervently praying for geulah for themselves, community, and the world. Hopefully, that amounts to something in the estimation of the Ribbono Shel Olam, who will part all the clouds that obscure the vision of His greatness.

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1 Response

  1. Raymond says:

    I probably do not understand much of what Rabbi Adlerstein so eloquently wrote, yet somehow what he expressed, reminds me of a well-known saying by British novelist/essayist George Orwell: “Some ideas are so stupid, that only an intellectual believes them.”

    Sometimes I wonder if there are segments of our society that are too over-intellectualized. That may sound counter-intuitive, since so many people are so ignorant in so many things. But I am thinking here about, for example, tenured university professors in the social sciences, who are so caught up in their own thoughts, so divorced from the trials and tribulations of everyday life, that they may have little or no wisdom at all. It is no accident that many of them harbor ideas so destructive to our civilization, such as various forms of Marxism that have unfortunately so infiltrated our society.

    Businessmen, in sharp contrast, may not be able to write great literary works or political treatises, but because they are forced to deal with the public in a very real, down-to-Earth way, may have more wisdom than any professor.

    One of the wisest aspects of Judaism, is its stress on action in the every day world. While beliefs are definitely important, it is the doing of the endless commandments that give the ideas of Judaism a more concrete, deeper, and meaningful imprint. The Torah itself is not particularly philosophical, as much as it is about everyday actions of flesh-and-blood human beings. The Talmud is overwhelmingly a discussion of the law, with a sprinkling of stories: again, its emphasis is on the concrete.

    I think that is what Rabbi Adlerstein is trying to say here, that events like our ancestors being saved from Egyptian slavery, or even something as abstract as the sun being in the same position relative to the Earth as it was when President Reagan first took office, should be moved away from the abstract, to the more concrete, in order for it to have real meaning in our lives.