Making the Invisible Visible

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
February 6, 2012
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“Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa said: Whoever derives benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing is regarded as if he has stolen from God and the community of Israel” (Berachot 35a-b). The relationship between the recitation of blessings and God is clear, for God is the One who created the fruit of the vine and brought forth bread from the earth. But, why did Rabbi Chanina add that it was also like stealing from the community?

The rabbis understand the act of blessing as not only acknowledging the divine source of that which we consume, but also the human source as well. To consume without acknowledging the individuals who brought an item to our table is to “steal” from them and from the community at large. While the traditional blessings do not explicitly refer to human labor, the rabbis infer the human dimension of the act of blessing. When we recite the blessing over bread, we are not only acknowledging God, but also the farmer, baker, distributer, shelf stocker, and so many others. We realize that our lives our intertwined with people all over the planet – the very people who grow food, make our clothes, assemble our cars, and build our homes. Indeed, Jewish tradition affirms the sacred nature of human labor and demands that we also protect the rights of all workers.

If we have a contribution to make as American Jews, it is to share the wisdom of our system of values – including the protections afforded by Jewish tradition to those who earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. The Torah calls us to do “what is good and right in the sight of the Lord” (Deut. 12:28). This includes reshaping laws so that in each generation they can be the best approximation of justice (Elliot Dorff). Our just society should expect no less.

During the days of the Torah and Talmud the work necessary to sustain the community was visible to all. The farmer, the shoemaker, the butcher, the teacher, the seamstress – all were community members and were known to one another. In our modern, global economy, work and workers are hidden from us as consumers – out of sight and out of mind. Indeed there is much work to be done. Perhaps we can begin with a simple blessing. The act of reciting a blessing is a way of making the invisible visible. The first step towards taking action is recognizing the humanity in every individual. With every blessing we recite, we reconnect ourselves to God and to the human community that makes our existence possible.

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