The Moral Dimension of Opening Our Eyes in the Morning
How are we meant to orient to our day when we wake up? In what ways can a short blessing about God opening our eyes set our intention for the day to come?
The Talmud (Bavli Berakhot 60b) tells us that when we wake up in the morning, we should recite a blessing with every act that accompanies our body movements.1 When we get dressed, we thank God Who clothes the naked; when we put our feet on the floor, we thank God for the ground we walk on.
One of the first of these types of blessings we recite, upon opening our eyes,2 is:
ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם פוקח עורים
Blessed are You, YHVH, King of the universe, Who opens the eyes of the blind.
What exactly are we thanking God for in this blessing? Certainly there is a literal aspect to this: we are grateful to God for the ability to see.3 The Talmud located the occasion to thank God for that ability in the moment of opening our eyes in the morning.
But the blessing does not say “פותח עיניים - Who opens the eyes,” but rather “פוקח עורים - Who opens the eyes of the blind.” Indeed, פותח and פוקח are synonyms,4 but the choice of פוקח leads us to a series of biblical reference points5 which use פוקח and עוורים, not פותח and עיניים. These biblical intertexts help push beyond a literal understanding of this short blessing.
One understanding of this blessing, which emerges from Parashat Mishpatim, is the moral element of opening one’s eyes. Among the list of laws given to Moshe at Sinai, we read the following warning:
וְשֹׁחַד לֹא תִקָּח כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר פִּקְחִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִים:
Do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the open—eyed and perverts the words of the innocent.
This commandment warns us not to take bribes, for this distorts our ability to render correct judgment. The law uses the language of פוקח and עורים. Originally oriented toward judges, this law is concerned that one may rule in favor of a guilty party, simply because of a cash gift from them.6 The midrashic understanding of this verse broadens the moral guideline here beyond taking monetary bribes:
תלמוד בבלי כתובות קה:
ת"ר: ושוחד לא תקח - אינו צריך לומר שוחד ממון, אלא אפילו שוחד דברים נמי אסור, מדלא כתיב בצע לא תקח
Talmud Bavli Ketubot 105b
Our rabbis taught: “Do not take bribes.” Of course this includes monetary bribes. But even verbal bribery is forbidden, from the fact that the verse did not say: “Do not take profit.”
According to this interpretation, the type of bribery prohibited by the Torah is not just a monetary pay-off. It even includes someone who benefits from favors, which the Talmud terms: “שוחד דברים - verbal bribery.” The Talmud goes on to describe a number of these situations, including the simple act of giving someone a helping hand out of a boat, removing a feather that floated onto someone’s head, or covering up spit to make sure someone else doesn’t step in it. These are small favors, but they are favors nonetheless. They subtly influence the manner in which we treat others. When you help me out of a boat, I have a harder time ruling against you in court. After all, I owe you something, even if it is negligible.
This dynamic is not limited to judges, however. A different midrashic tradition notes how Yitzhak was swayed by Esav simply because Esav used to feed him tasty food. This is why, according to the midrash, Yitzhak was not able to see: he was blinded by this gift-giving of his older son.7 Those who are truly open-eyed understand the ways in which we are all potentially influenced by others, and how even small favors color the way in which we behave toward and treat others.8
With this in mind, what could our morning blessing mean? It could be a reminder to us, as we start our day, to understand the ways in which we are drawn off the path of objective judgment, and to be aware of the influences on how we treat others. This blessing might offer us the opportunity to ask: What are the relationships we slide into, or the favors we experience, that color our ability to distinguish between right and wrong? This is an intense—but important—way to start the day: bringing our consciousness to this kind of dynamic in our lives, and asking God to make us aware of it.
The focus on the moral aspect of this blessing is not limited to our own recognition of potential bias, but also on the motivation to bring greater justice to the world. This reading emerges from one understanding of Isaiah’s use of this metaphor of opening the eyes of the blind:
אֲנִי יְקֹוָק קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק
לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם:
לִפְקֹחַ עֵינַיִם עִוְרוֹת
לְהוֹצִיא מִמַּסְגֵּר אַסִּיר
מִבֵּית כֶּלֶא יֹשְׁבֵי חֹשֶׁךְ:
I YHVH, in My grace, have summoned you,
And I have grasped you by the hand.
I created you, and appointed you
A covenant people, a light of nations—
Opening blinded eyes,
Rescuing prisoners from confinement,
From the dungeon, those who sit in darkness.
Isaiah envisions that we are meant to be a moral beacon unto the nations. How is this role enacted? By opening the eyes of the blind and freeing those in prison. Opening the eyes of the blind here is not a medical procedure, but a form of education: to instruct others in the moral ways of God.9 Indeed, opening one’s eyes through learning is a key to understanding this metaphor. In his commentary to the Siddur, R. David Abudraham views our blessing not to refer to those who are literally blind, but rather those “closed off from knowledge.”10 Upon waking, we ask God to help us access wisdom more effectively, and bring others along, opening our collective eyes to knowledge.11 This kind of deep moral knowledge cannot be attained without the help of God. In the words of a midrash: “Everyone is considered blind until the Holy Blessed One enlightens their eyes.”12
As an intention for the day ahead, this blessing offers many possible meanings.13 Whether we are offering thanks for the literal ability to see, or the recognition of subtle bias that may blind us, or the motivation to make the world a more just place, the blessing orients us toward critical goals. Waking up in the morning can be hard, given our mood or energy level. Reciting this blessing at the beginning of our day has the potential to transform that moment from a mindless set of motions to an opportunity to set intention and focus, and an occasion to thank God for this opportunity.
1 Originally, these blessings were occasioned only by specific acts. Later, however, they became bunched liturgically and recited in the synagogue one after another; see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 46:2. Rambam objected strenuously to this development, and saw them as blessings that should be recited only if someone did the act associated with them, and in the moment of doing the act—as described by the Talmud. See Hilkhot Tefilah 7:7-9.
2 Some manuscripts of the Talmud indicate that one should recite this blessing not upon opening one’s eyes (כי פתח עיניה), but rather when one places one’s hand on one’s eyes (כי מנח ידיה על עיניה), presumably to wash them. See Dalia Marx, “Ha-Ma’avir Sheinah,” Ritual ha-Hashkamah biTfillot Yisrael, PhD diss. (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2005), p. 75, n. 47. Interestingly, this blessing does not appear at all in the Eretz Yisrael tradition. See Vered Raziel-Kretzmer, “Tefillat ha-Boker ha-Eretz Yisraelit be-Seridei Megillah Min ha-Genizah,” Kovetz al Yad 24 (34), 2016, p. 27.
3 See Rokeiah’s commentary to the Siddur, ed. Siddur Torat Hayyim (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 2020), p. 28: “כשאדם ישן הרי הוא כעוור שאינו רואה וכשפוקח עיניו ורואה אורה צריך לברך ליוצרו על כך. / When a person is asleep, it is as if they are blind and cannot see, and when they open their eyes and see light, they must bless their Creator about this.” There is a debate among authorities about whether people who physically cannot see should recite this blessing. Standard practice now is to recite the blessing. See Birkei Yosef Orah Hayyim 46:13; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 69:2 and Talmud Bavli Megillah 24b.
5 See, for instance, Daniel 9:18, cited by R”I bar Yakar, and Psalm 146:8, cited by R. David Abudraham. See also Radak to Psalm 146:8, for multiple understandings of the phrase פוקח עוורים in the context of that Psalm.
8 Ironically, one midrash paints God as accepting a bribe when answering prayer. Prayer, in this conception, offers the worshiper a way out of trouble, even though we don’t deserve it, and God answering our prayer isn’t “fair.” See Midrash Tehillim 17:5, ed. Buber, p. 64a. This is in contrast to the human temptation to show favor to others based on gifts. God can show favor, while humans can’t.
9 Metzudat David (R. David Altschuler, 17th-18th c.) on Isaiah 42:7 understands this verse to address the Messiah, and describes his role as the one who will “enlighten the nations to know that YHVH is God.” Malbim (1809-1879) views this as addressing the prophet Isaiah (see also Rashi to the previous verse). In my view, this verse, which is famously ambiguous, could be addressing all the members of Israel, not just the Messiah or the prophet.
10 “היו סתומי' מן הדעת.” Indeed, Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 146:6 (ed. Buber, pp. 535-6) notes that we are all ignorant in our study of Torah until God opens the eyes of the blind (אז תפקחנה עיני עורים, see Isaiah 35:5). See Marx, p. 77, n. 49.