Chanukah was approaching, and the first-grade teacher wanted to give his class a fun assignment. He asked his students to draw a picture of something they were thankful for, and at the end, they would hang them all together in a collage. Most of the students drew Chanukah-related images, but Yaakov drew a different kind of picture. Yaakov was a different kind of boy. He came from a disadvantaged family, he struggled in school, and he had trouble making friends. As the other children played, Yaakov was likely to stay back and stand by his teacher’s side.
His picture was an outline of a hand. Just an empty hand, nothing else.
Yaakov’s abstract image captured the imagination of his peers. Whose hand could it be? One child guessed that it was Yaakov’s own hand. Another suggested that it was a police officer’s hand, because the police protect and care for people. Others guessed that it was the hand of Hashem, because Hashem takes care of us and gives us everything. And on the discussion went.
When the children had gone on to other assignments, the teacher paused at Yaakov’s desk, bent down, and asked, “Whose hand was it?”
The little boy looked away and whispered, “It’s yours.”
He recalled the times he had taken his hand and walked with him here or there. How often he had said, “Take my hand, Yaakov, we’ll go outside.” Or, “Let me show you how to hold your pencil.” Or, “Let’s do this together.” Yaakov was most thankful for his teacher’s hand.
Brushing aside a tear, he went on with the class, touched by Yaakov’s gratitude.
Life Is Filled with Brachos
A hallmark of the Jewish experience is the myriad of brachos (blessings) intertwined into the fabric of daily living. From the moment we wake up (Al n’tilas yadayim) until the moment we fall asleep (HaMapil), we recite brachah after brachah on every imaginable aspect of our lives: before and after eating, throughout davening, even after going to the bathroom. Every milestone of life is accompanied by a unique brachah, as well: from the birth of a child, followed by bris milah and pidyon ha’ben, and subsequently to mark marriage and even death. Life’s milestones are marked and elevated through brachos.
Blessings and Curses
In Parshas Balak, Bilaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jewish People. He attempts to do so, but unwittingly proclaims elaborate blessings instead. On the surface level, it is clear that brachos reflect a positive force, while curses signify the opposite. However, there are layers of depth beneath the surface. Let us delve more deeply into the true nature of brachos and klalos in order to understand their profound spiritual nature.
Brachah: From Oneness to Twoness
The prerequisite for any discussion of brachos is to understand how Hashem relates to the physical world. Hashem is infinite: beyond physicality, unconfined by time or space. He is not within this world, nor is He a being; the world – and being itself – are within Him. Hashem is absolute oneness, without any components, finitude, or multiplicity. The physical world, in contrast, is finite, existing in a realm of time, space, and multiplicity.
How, then, does Hashem connect to this physical world? How can that which is transcendent and infinite connect to, and manifest within, our finite, particular world? The answer is through brachah – the flow of abundance and multiplicity (tosefes v’ribui) that stems from Hashem’s transcendent oneness. Brachah represents the transition from infinite oneness to particular twoness – the process by which Hashem’s divine energy (shefa) flows into this world.
Brachah: The Word of Twoness
There is an enigmatic midrash that states that the letter beis was chosen from all 22 letters of the alef-beis to begin the Torah (B’reishis). The midrash clarifies Hashem’s decision by explaining that the letter beis stands for the word brachah. Many commentators, especially the Ibn Ezra, struggle to understand this explanation. After all, the letter beis is the first letter of many negative words, as well. Why is its connection to brachah the only one considered?
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 34) explains this midrash in a profound and beautiful fashion. Beis doesn’t “stand” for the word brachah; it is the letter of brachah. Beis is the letter of twoness and multiplicity; brachah is the word of twoness and multiplicity. Beis, reish, and kaf/chaf, the shoresh (root) of the word brachah, are each letters of multiplicity. Beis has the numerical value of 2, kaf is 20, and reish is 200. These are all the letters of twoness, and brachah is the paradigmatic concept of twoness, as well. Brachah is the mechanism of expressing Hashem’s oneness into the world, expanding into twoness through tosefes v’ribui.
This is why the Torah begins with the letter beis. Torah is a physical array of finite words, all of which are a loyal reflection and emanation of Hashem’s wisdom and absolute oneness. Furthermore, the Torah begins by describing Hashem’s creation of the physical world, a process most appropriately embodied by the letter beis – the letter of twoness that stems from oneness.
The letter beis reflects the process of Hashem’s oneness becoming expressed into our physical world. This contrasts with the Aseres HaDibros, which begins with an alef. While the episode of creation epitomizes the finite expression of multiplicity that stems from oneness, Matan Torah was the exact opposite; the giving of the Torah was the elevation and ascension from twoness to oneness, an unparalleled experience of truth, oneness, and the transcendent spiritual dimension of reality. It was an experience of Hashem Himself, and therefore begins with the letter of oneness and transcendence – alef.
The Ramchal (Daas T’vunos 46) explains at length that Hashem created this world for the sole purpose of giving us brachah. The Ramchal translates brachah as goodness, shefa (spiritual energy), and light. In other words, brachah is Hashem’s expression into, and revelation in, this world. Receiving brachah means receiving Hashem’s goodness and expression in this world.
At this point, we need to make an important distinction. There is a fundamental difference between twoness that is connected to oneness and spirituality – which we will refer to as brachah – and twoness that is purely physical and disconnected from spirituality. Detached and disconnected twoness is lifeless, purposeless, and dead. Twoness that is connected to oneness is a physicality infused with vibrancy, always expanding beyond its apparent limits and borders. Such physicality is constantly expanding, as it is connected to a higher source. This is a physicality rooted in brachah, fully connected to its spiritual root.
When we recite brachos and say “Baruch atah Hashem,” we are not blessing Hashem. Hashem, infinite and perfect, does not need our blessings. Rather, there are two simultaneous intentions that we must have when making a brachah. The first, as Rabbeinu Bachya explains (Kad HaKemach – Brachah), is to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all blessing, abundance, and goodness in the world. This is a meditation of hakaras ha’tov (recognition of the good) and a practice of sourcing all multiplicity and brachah back to its source. In essence, when we make a brachah, we are recognizing Hashem as the source of all brachah.
Our second intention, as the Rashba (Shu”t 5:51), the Vilna Gaon, and the Nefesh HaChaim (2:2, 2:10) explain, is asking Hashem to continue to abundantly manifest into this world, and into my personal life.
The first step is recognition and connecting back to Hashem – our Source. The second step is an exercise of will; we attempt to bring Hashem into this world and ask that He manifest abundantly – both into the world in general, and into our individual lives.
Klalos: Curses of Limitation
Klalos (curses) are the exact opposite of brachos. If brachah is the overflowing and boundless expression of goodness and shefa into this world, klalah represents the limitation and constriction of Hashem’s flow into this world, replacing abundance with boundaries and restriction. A curse is the attempt to limit Hashem’s manifestation and presence in this world.
It is important to note that while the concept of klalah is often perceived as inherently negative, this does not have to be the case. Brachah represents outflow and endless abundance, while klalah represents a limitation of that abundance. If used correctly, the midah (characteristic) of klalah can actually be constructive. When the use of limitations is implemented only in order to help make the brachah useful and real, the klalah itself ends up becoming part of the brachah. For instance, too much rain results in flooding. A limitation on rain, resulting in a proper amount of water, is a necessary and productive form of limitation. The problem is when klalah is used for the purpose of destroying brachah and preventing any brachah from manifesting.
Bilaam: From Klalah to Brachah
We can now understand Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Jewish People in an entirely new light. Bilaam attempted to curse klal Yisrael, to cut off their spiritual connection with Hashem. In response, Hashem did more than just negate Bilaam’s curses; He turned these very curses into brachos, strengthening the connection between Hashem and klal Yisrael and reinforcing the channel of brachah that flows from Hashem into this world.
Living a Life of Brachah
Our mission is to use the physical world as a medium through which we connect to Hashem. We no longer see reality with a clear lens. But that gives us a unique opportunity – to create light within the darkness, to use our free will to choose to see Hashem. We don’t only ask for brachah; we create it by actively seeing Hashem’s presence flow into every aspect of our lives. May we be inspired to live lives full of brachah, sourcing every dimension of our lives back to Hashem, and living a life of oneness within this world of twoness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com