This past January, in celebration of ten years of friendship, one of my closest friends and I decided to take a trip. We started scheming about this last summer, but it took a handful of WhatsApp voice messages, numerous texts, and one shared ADHD-hyperfocus session between us to determine where–Costa Rica–and when–the week of January 16th. Costa Rica is renowned for its gorgeous beaches and coasts, though we spent most of our time in the capital city of San José.
But on our last full day, we decided to go on a nature adventure in nearby Alajuela. Our adventure began at the Doka Coffee Estate where we learned all about coffee production and its wild history (fun fact: until receiving Pope Clement VIII’s blessing in the early 17th century, coffee was often referred to as a “satanic drink”). After getting our fill of fresh coffee, we bopped over to Parque Nacional Volcán Poás (Poas Volcano National Park) to hike a few volcanoes and eat some of the most delicious strawberries I have ever tasted. After making our way through an animal sanctuary, our adventure ended at Catarata de la Paz (La Paz Waterfall).
Have you ever seen a waterfall? If so, do you remember how you felt? I spent many years living in a land-locked state, so I never thought much about waterfalls, but as we made our descent to La Paz’s base, I could see and hear the tremendous power rushing through it. Once we arrived at the base of the waterfall, I was so overcome with emotion all I could do was sing:
“Let the waves wash over me,
Let the waves wash over me,
I am already under,
Let the waves wash over me.”
These are lyrics from the song “Tomorrow” by Miner. Now that I’ve had a few months to reflect on my waterfall experience, the most accurate way to describe what I felt is awe. I sang those words over and over again, but something was missing. I needed to do more somehow. Encountering this waterfall was a divine experience and I needed to bless it, but how?
עַל הֶהָרִים, וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת, וְעַל הַיַּמִּים, וְעַל הַנְּהָרוֹת, וְעַל הַמִּדְבָּרוֹת
אוֹמֵר: בָּרוּךְ עוֹשֵׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁי
For mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts, one recites: Blessed…Author of creation.
This blessing comes from chapter 9 of Mishnah Brachot, a rabbinic text concerning blessings (brachot). In this tractate, the rabbis spend considerable time discussing halachot related to the recitation of the Sh’ma and the Amidah, they go on a side quest into blessings over food, and end with blessings to recite in response to what someone experiences.
During my first semester of rabbinical school we went IN on this tractate. My trivruta met for several hours each week to study it. Two of my favorite teachings from this tractate are:
- Reciting a blessing or saying a prayer requires our attention and intention. In Brachot 5:1, the Mishnah explains that, traditionally, very pious people would arrive at synagogue (or wherever they prayed), and wait outside for an hour in order to get into the right frame of mind and direct their heart toward prayer.
- Reciting a blessing or saying a prayer can shift things energetically. In Brachot 6:5 the Mishnah teaches that one who blesses wine before a meal exempts the wine from being blessed after the meal. Not the person who said the blessing, but the wine itself. In SVARA batei midrash, we dedicate our learning as part of the blessing for Torah study; the energy we’re generating through our study can go somewhere.
In my awe-stricken state, I knew I needed to bless the moment. And while the text of the Mishnah didn’t specifically include waterfalls in the list, I feel like it counts. Did my blessing exempt the waterfall from being blessed by someone else? No, of course not. But did my blessing transform the waterfall in some way? Perhaps. What I can say for certain is that witnessing La Paz and offering a blessing transformed me and my own understanding.
When we left for this trip, I was excited to take a much-needed break and get away from it all. I had just finished my first semester of rabbinical school while still managing the effects of suddenly and unexpectedly being laid off from my job. I very much subscribe to the mentality that if I’m on a vacation or just somewhere other than where I live, then the inconvenient things in life become what I affectionately call, “Later Marques Problems.” The truth of the matter is that I may have gotten away from it all, physically, but I was still in the thick of it. In the waves, the ebbing and flowing of formation, of questioning, of wondering, and of awe.
By blessing this moment, by using those words, I extended an invitation to my spiritual ancestors and G!?d to meet me there in Alajuela. Not only to see this stunning waterfall but to see me. To witness who I was in that exact moment, and who I continue to become.
Blessed is the Author of Creation, whose waves wash over you, over me, over all of us.