Updated: Nov 17, 2022
You Spread Out The Earth Upon the Waters
We bless You and acknowledge You, Yah, Cosmic Majesty.
You spread out the Earth upon the Waters.
This blessing (my translation) is in the longish list of blessings of Birkot HaShachar, the
morning blessings. The blessing recognizes that we have firm ground beneath us on
which to stand and to live, which is simultaneously obvious and wondrous. It also states
an aspect of Israelite cosmology – that the firm ground is a solid layer beneath which all
is water (the seas, the water table into which wells are sunk, and so on) and above
which is more water (blue water above the bubble of air).
But wait, there is more. The verb (a participle, I think) in the second part of the blessing
is רוֹקַע, rokah. The grammatical root is part of a family of roots that all have to do with
thinness – beating metal into a thin sheet like gold leaf, stretching out a thin layer of
something, grinding spices into tiny bits, and so on. The use of rokah in the blessing
adds this layer of meaning – that the ground beneath us is a thin layer stretched or
spread over that watery layer beneath it.
If earth and ground are firm, reliable, fertile perhaps, solid, walkable, what of the water
beneath the earth? Water also can be a fertile medium, references to water can imply
the amniotic fluid that surrounded us in the womb, and we all know we cannot last long
without water nor grow food without it. Water, especially in large quantities, has another
quality - water can be disorienting, chaotic, destructive.
Our Jewish creation story (the first version, in Genesis 1 of Parashat Bereishit) assumes
that whatever it was that existed before the Holy One began creating earth and skies
was watery and chaotic, and that chaos had to be contained in order for dry land to
appear and plants and animals to be. The first step in this process of containment is
described as the creation of a “rakiah”, a space of some sort separating the waters
below from the waters above. Rakiah is grammatically related to rokah in our blessing,
and it may be that rakiah implies thinness of the separation (or maybe not – it might just
be about spreading out).
Why has this been in my thoughts this past week and more? We go about our lives
expecting things to be reliably as they usually are. And then stuff beyond our control
happens, for our community most recently the burning and defacing of the sign on the
lawn of the synagogue. We reel in some mixture of disbelief, anger, fear, disgust,
defensive determination, each of us reacting in our own way to the reminder that the
earth beneath our feet is not always solid and reliable. That sometimes the reliable
sameness is revealed to be a thin layer, stretched over the possibility of watery
How interesting and useful, then, to reflect that this tension between reliability and
chaos is called to our attention every morning. And we bless the Holy One for that
tension, for allowing us to get on with our lives while acknowledging that the risk of
disruption is in some sense an elemental part of being. Just a few pages later into the
morning prayers, in Ahavah Rabah, we note that our ancestors trusted God, that God
taught them the laws of life, and we ask that we, too, be the recipients of God’s grace
and teaching. This trust, bitachon in the language of the rabbinic traditions, is offered
as a path of peace and confidence in the world as it really is.
With blessings for a week of joy and engagement.
החזן שלמה זלמן עיט בן מרדכי מרגלן