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Thought for the Day: Recognition That You Are Owed Nothing Is The Foundation Of All

Suppose I asked you if you believed in atoms.  You would probably look at me like I was from another planet and wonder what I was up to.  (Fair enough... I'm usually up to something when I ask a question like that.)  Still, you would likely play along and answer in the affirmative.  What if I then asked you for evidence you have for that belief, being as neither you nor anyone else has ever or will ever actually see an atom?  ("Aha!", you think, "I knew he was up to no good!")

Now suppose I were to ask you if you believe that stealing is morally wrong.  Same eye rolling on your part, again deciding to play along and answer in the affirmative.  This time when I ask you for your evidence, however, your answer is, "I don't need evidence; it is logical that taking something that belongs to someone else is morally wrong."

Now we can begin.

There is a strange discussion in the gemara (Brachos 35a) (my free translation):
Fact 1: It is forbidden to benefit from this world without making a bracha.
Fact 2: Benefiting without making a bracha is tantamount to stealing from G-d. Question 1: What is the remedy for someone who transgresses?
Answer: Go to a חכם (one who is truly steeped in Torah knowledge and understanding)
Astonished Retort: Go to a חכם?!? How will that help? He already committed the crime!
Answer (Revised): Go to a חכם from the beginning to learn brachos so this won't happen.
Um... what?  First of all, what information did the revised answer impart that could not have been inferred from the original answer. Second, how in the world did that answer the challenge?  He still already committed the crime, after all!  Yet the gemara just continues on its merry way.

I propose that to understand this gemara, one needs to note its context (I know, I know, adding facts always kills all the fun).  The preceding gemara, in fact nearly all of page 35a is beautiful dialectic that begins with the question, "How do I know that it is forbidden to benefit from this world without making a bracha?".  The conclusion: It's logical.  Very cool; proposed sources right and left, all knocked down.  The arguments leads the reader to examine tiny details of halacha and fine logical inferences from rabbinic statements only to conclude: never mind, there is no proof, it's just logical.

As fun as that gemara is (I know someone personally who was positively giddy with excitement at the conlusion), but מאי נפקא מינה/what practical difference does it make whether making brachos is logical or based in fine halachic reasoning?

The answer is the strange discussion above that follows that conclusion immediately.  If brachos were based on detailed logic, so someone who doesn't know that logic will not make brachos.  There's nothing to fix.  It's like asking someone what evidence they have for atoms.  Not knowing is not a sin.  If you want to know, go ask a scientist; if you don't, don't.

But if a person doesn't know stealing is wrong, then he needs more than learning the laws of torts.  In fact, before he learns the laws of tort he very much needs to go to a חכם and have an attitude adjustment.  The questioner above wanted to know what was the remedy to having failed to make a bracha.  The answer was that the issue is not that he didn't make a bracha, the issue is that he obviously does not understand what a bracha is and the statement it makes.  That person needs to go to a חכם  and start over -- from the beginning of his understanding of what he is doing in this world -- and start learning brachos.

After that, we can talk about atoms.


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