We Jews love to pray. It’s our most widespread religious practice which, in one form or another, transcends our denominational divides. We pray formally at least three times each day, but almost constantly we keep up our dialogue with The Creator.
We pray not just to ask favors from God, or as I like to describe it, present our daily shopping list, but more frequently to praise and thank The Creator. Most mitzvot, commandments (religious mandates), which we perform throughout each day, begin with a prayer before and often have another prayer to bring it to a close. These blessings are known as brachot, and generally begin with the words Baruch Ata which roughly means Bless You. By far, the most frequent addressee of our brachot is God.
Just like most of our ritual behavior, there is a tremendous amount of literature written about prayers, tefillot, and blessings, barachot. The Shulchan Aruch, a systematic code of Jewish law written in the 1560s by Rabbi Yosef Karo, contains an interesting passage (Orach Chayim 222:3), “One is obligated to bless (God) for the bad that befalls him, with full awareness and an accepting heart, exactly in the manner he blesses Him for the good.” (1)
Karo empahsizes the equivalence of our acceptance of the bad with the phrase b’daat shlema, with complete, perfect/understanding. That’s a pretty full prescription for us, but one of the strongest statements of faith we could possibly make. We’re not assuming here the arrogant chutzpah to say we know why God sends bad things our way (nor, for that matter, why He sends us the good). What we can, and are obligated to know is that both are, exactly equivalently, for our benefit and the ultimate benefit of all Creation. The “system” is far more complicated than reward for our good deeds and punishment for the bad.
Since we can’t even say that bad things that come our way is negative feedback for our own bad deeds, why are we supposed to be so happy to break out in spontaneous thanksgiving?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, better known just as Rav Kook (First Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine (1865 – 1935), provides what might be the best insight as he explains repeatedly through his vast work that created and provides us with all the elements necessary to complete Creation. Among those elements will necessarily be many which, at the surface, repel, rather than attract us. We experience them as bad, unpleasant, some even as evil.
When we’re engaged with these fragments of reality which we need to knit into the completed, redeemed, world. We need to remind ourselves that these experiences not only have utility, but that they’re absolutely necessary to complete our journey. Thus, we need to overcome our first impulse to reject them, but rather to embrace them as the raw material which only we will be able to transform into their most perfect state. In fact, integrating and incorporating them might be are single most valuable contribution.
(1) Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 222:3 סימנים רא-ש סימן רכב ברכת הודאת הטוב והרע. ובו ד’ סעיפים: א על שמועות שהן טובות לו לבדו מברך שהחיינו ואם הן טובות לו ולאחרים מברך הטוב והמטיב: ב על שמועות רעות מברך בא”י אמ”ה דיין האמת: ג חייב אדם לברך על הרעה בדעת שלמה ובנפש חפצה כדרך שמברך בשמחה על הטובה כי הרעה לעובדי השם היא שמחתם וטובתם כיון שמקבל מאהבה מה שגזר עליו השם נמצא שבקבלת רעה זו הוא עובד את השם שהיא שמחה לו