(Please remember that there will be no postings on prayer for three weeks -- the next two Shabbatot are also holidays.)
The last time I spent any time in an undergraduate college class was over 30 years ago. I don't remember much about specific classes, but I do remember a particular session of an astronomy course I took. The professor was J. Allen Hynek who had reluctantly become the leading expert on UFOs – so much so that he advised and appeared in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." But weeks before he got to his lecture on flying saucers, he had the unenviable task of inspiring a lecture hall filled with students looking to fulfill their science requirement.
He began by trying to give us some sense of the size of the universe. Starting at one side of the hall, he said, "If you consider this the largest object in the universe and," (walking across the front of the room), "you follow a continuum toward the smallest object," (stopping just before the opposite wall), "you will find the earth here."
"But don't be discouraged by our relative size," he continued, returning to the far side of the hall. "If you start here with ourselves and continue along to the smallest particle of matter," (taking the same walk to the same destination), "you will find it here."
Prof. Hynek went on to describe the unique and remarkable vantage point from which we viewed the universe. After more than 20 years of going to synagogue, I understood the meaning of the word "awe" from my Intro to Astronomy class.
I find myself in a similar position when reciting a brakhah. I begin by calling on the most powerful entity in the universe – Adonai Eloheinu – and finding myself the object of God's concern, able to relate to the enormity and eternity that is implied in "barukh atah," etc. By what right do I stand before the Creator of the Universe, and how do I withstand being on the receiving end of such concern? Surely, I am the smallest of the small.
And then come the concluding words of the brakhah – it does not matter which one: borei p'ri hagafen, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz, l'hadlik ner shel shabbat. And suddenly, the divine power is invested in me and I have the ability to turn a mundane act like taking a sip of wine, eating a piece of bread or lighting a couple of candles into a moment filled with the divine Presence. By acknowledging my relationship with God I acquire the ability to sanctify a moment as small and insignificant before me as I am before the Holy One. God moves through my voice and my hand; I become an agent of Adonai Eloheinu, my Compassionate One, our Judge.