Blessings, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

on Monday, 25 September 2017. Posted in Rabbi

Blessings

There is a teaching in the Talmud, the compilation of Jewish laws and stories from the sixth century, that when we encounter a person whom we have not seen in over a year, we are to recite a simple five-word Hebrew blessing: Baruch atah adonai, m’chayei hameitim, “Blessed are You, God, for giving life to the dead.”

I hear this blessing today as a metaphor. In this day and age, if we have not seen a friend, relative, or even acquaintance in over a year, we usually, not always, but usually, know if that person is alive or dead. In the sixth century, however, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Then, it probably didn’t feel like a metaphor when pray­ing, “giving life to the dead” upon seeing someone after so long.

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz[1] explained the blessing in mystical terms. He taught that the joy of two people meeting creates an angel. This angel is expected to live for only one year. If the two meet again during that year, the angel gets another 12 months. If not, the angel is no more. When friends meet after not seeing each other for a year, the angel is resurrected. Thus, a blessing is pronounced over the miraculous revival of their joint angel.

And maybe, just maybe, the blessing is meant to remind us that these angels are the people we have forgotten to keep in our lives.

Baruch atah adonai, m’chayei hameitim, “Blessed are You, God, for giving life to the dead,” is the final line of the second prayer of the traditional Amidah. Orthodox Jews utter those words three times a day. Reform Jews say them once a year – next week at the end of our Yom Kippur service. In our regular worship, we instead say m’chayei hakol – for giving life to all.

I share with you the teaching about m’chayei hameitim in part because, theologically, it is one of the most challenging Jewish blessings. That is why more than 100 years ago, our Reform leaders rejected the notion that God can or will resurrect the dead.

The notion of blessings, not just m’chayei hameitim, challenges many of us. The opening words, baruch atah adonai, blessed are You, God, makes many of us wonder: Does God really need to be blessed? Is God insecure?

These questions arise mostly because of difficulties in translating the Hebrew. Baruch is not a verb describing what we do – to bless. Rather, it is an adjective that describes God – theologically, the source of all blessings. So when we say baruch atah adonai, we are not blessing God. Instead, we are expressing gratitude toward and awe of God for what God does.

Daniella Levy emphasizes the awe, and reframes it as awareness. She writes, “When I hold an apple in my hand and say, “Blessed are You, God, who creates the fruit of the tree,” I’m saying a lot more than just “thanks for making this apple.” I’m [really] saying, “Your presence in this world has been made that much greater – has increased, through this fruit You created that I am about to enjoy [and] through my recognition of [Your] role in creating it. Simply put: In this apple, I see God.”

We think of blessings, b’rachot, as a part of our synagogue wor­ship. And they clearly are. A Jew who prays three times a day will say 90 blessings just during the services. As our tradition teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day, it’s kind of easy to reach the goal if you pray in the synagogue a lot.

One hundred blessings a day? Why?

We read in the Torah: ‘Now Israel, what does God ask from you? To fear God, walk in God’s ways, love God, serve God with all your heart and soul, and guard God’s commandments and laws.”[2]

The Rabbis took the word what, which is mah in Hebrew. The word for 100 is me-ah, which is similar. So, they concluded, the Torah doesn’t say “what does God ask of you,” but rather, “100 things – blessings – God asks of you.”[3]

Here’s another explanation: During the time of King David, a plague killed 100 people a day. King David instituted a rule that people were to say 100 blessings a day. Guess what? The plague stopped. In memory of those who died or in celebra­tion of the end of the dying, we say 100 blessings a day.[4]

In either case, the Rabbis were mostly concerned about mind­ful­ness, that we go through our day aware of what surrounds us. When we recite blessings, we engage our minds and our hearts and our souls, rather than simply pray rotely.

Jewish tradition categorizes blessings. One category is blessings of experi­ence – mostly seeing and hearing, but not exclusively. These include blessings for hearing thunder, seeing a rainbow, seeing a streak of lightening, experiencing an earthquake, seeing a mountain, or touching live water.

Dr. Rivka Danzig says about the blessing for hearing thunder, “I say, ‘Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, for Your strength and Your power fill the world.” She adds, “Isn’t that better than [telling a fearful child], ‘God is bowling?’”

Another experiential blessing is Birkat HaGomel, the blessing we say when we have been saved from a potentially life-threatening situation. As a community, we invite all who wish to offer this blessing to do so during our Kol Nidrei service.

There are many other experiential blessings – for seeing a learned person, seeing a beautiful person, seeing evidence of charitable efforts, seeing people who overcome adversity, hearing good news, hearing bad news, waking up in the morning, and going to sleep at night.

Okay, you’re thinking, I see how an Orthodox Jew – even one who doesn’t go to synagogue three times a day – can reach 100 blessings. But I’m not Orthodox, nor do I want to be.

Rabbi Saul Berman says: “Blessings are not just for the Orthodox; they [can be] made by Jews of all traditions who seek to “be engaging of God” in everyday life. Dr. Danzig adds, “The goal is God-awareness throughout life.” [Blessings] transform the mundane and the commonplace into the spiritual.”

I would add that saying blessings can make us aware of far more than God. When we gather as a community to eat, for example, we always begin by together reciting, baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, blessed are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. We say it to join together as a community. We say it because that’s what Jews do.

But we say it, too, in gratitude for the baker, the farmer, the harvester, and the planter; and for the water, the sunlight, and the earth. And maybe, too, we say the blessing to remind us that there are hungry people who don’t have any food to eat, never mind the luxury of blessing it.

The motzi is considered a blessing of enjoyment, a second category of brachot. These blessings are for things we enjoy with our senses, and most of them are for eating. Although we, as a community, say motzi over all food, motzi traditionally requires that a meal includes something made of flour. Thus, there are blessings for grain products not defined as bread, for fruits of trees, for fruits or vegetables that come from the earth, and for many other kinds of foods.

At many of our communal meals, we end with the recitation of birkat hamazon – literally, the blessing of food, but what we call “Grace After Meals.” We do a short form of the blessing, which is actually a compilation of many blessings. The long version ends with borei n’fashot, blessing God who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies.

Why would we thank God for creating deficiencies? In blessing food, we are expressing gratitude for God giving us something to eat to alleviate the hunger that God also gave us. Without hunger, how could enjoy the fulfillment of that lack – or deficiency.

Consider what this would mean on a spiritual level.

Enjoyment blessings are not just for food. We also offer them for pleasant scents – such as the blessing we offer over the spices at Havdalah.

One of the blessings most frequently recited by a Jew is the sh’hecheyanu, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” We say it at the start of each holiday. We say it at many lifecycles. Traditionally, it’s also said when tasting the first fruit of the season.

I began my remarks tonight sharing the blessing for seeing a person you haven’t seen in over a year. The sh’hecheyanu is meant to be said when you see a person you haven’t seen in at least 30 days. With our busy lives, could you imagine how often we’d say these words? Maybe the frequent recitation, which could get annoying and tedious, is a reminder that we need to make more time for the people who are important to us.

 

Saying blessings regularly can and will change a person.

There once was an Officer of the Law, a recent graduate, proud as you can imagine, in his uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold epaulets. He wore a hat with a plume and a sword with a gold and ivory handle. He was as pompous, arrogant, bold, and callous.

One day, he was walking his beat and heard a commotion in an alley. He ventured into the darkness, and in the distance saw a man in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. But the man in rags did not. “I am an Officer of the Law; I command you, come forward!”

The man in rags did not move. He shifted his weight and then spoke, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

“Do with me?” the Officer of the Law mocked. “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law.”

“Now I know what to do with you,” the man in rags said, and as he spoke, he drew his sword. Then he moved to attack.

The Officer of the Law drew his own sword in defense. “Stop! Put your sword down!” But the man in rags did not stop. The Officer of the Law parried thrusts left and right. “Stop!” he said again, but to no avail. The Officer of the Law was forced to retreat.

When it seemed the man in rags would prevail, he lowered his guard and the Officer of the Law’s parry accidentally became a thrust. His sword ran through the man in rags. “I didn’t mean that,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why didn’t you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?”

The man in rags waved the words away. “I am leaving you,” he said, “and I put upon you the Curse of Blessings.”

“What do you mean?” asked the Officer of the Law, now confused.

“The Curse of Blessings. Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing you will die.”

The man in rags closed his eyes. The Officer of the Law looked about for help. There was none to be found. When he turned back, the man in rags had disappeared.

“It was a dream,” the Officer of the Law thought.

The sun was setting. As much as the Officer of the Law tried to ignore his experience, he could not. The Jewish day ends at sunset. The Officer of the Law felt his body growing cold and knew that his life was leaving him. In a panic, he uttered: “Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who has created such a beautiful sunset.” At once, warmth and life flowed back into him. He realized, with both shock and relief, the curse was real.

The next morning he did not delay. He woke and said. “Blessed are You, God, who returned my soul to me this morning.” He felt secure the entire day. The next morning he blessed his ability to rise from his bed, the following day, that he could tie his shoes.

Day after day he found abilities he could bless. That he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hands worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment. He blessed his house, the roof and floor, his furniture, every table and chair.

When he ran out of things to bless, blessed relationships – his family and friends, co-workers, and subordinates, the letter carrier and clerks. His words had power. Family and friends drew closer.

Years passed, and decades. The Officer of the Law looked farther to find new sources of blessing. He blessed governments and university buildings, scientists, and their discoveries. He blessed the world’s beauty.

He passed the age of 100. His friends were gone. He knew the purpose of his life and thanked God for his blessings.

As he neared the age of 120, he felt he had lived long enough. Even Moses had not lived longer. On his birthday, he decided to utter no new blessing and allow himself to die. He recited old blessings, blessings for his body and possessions, for relationships, for the awesome beauty of creation, and for the pulse of purpose that pervaded his very being. But no new blessing passed his lips.

As the sun was setting, a chill ran through him. He did not resist it. In the twilight, a figure appeared, the man in rags. “You!” the Officer of the Law exclaimed. “I have though about you every day for 100 years!” I never meant to harm you. Please forgive me.”

“You don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “You don’t know who I am, do you? I am an angel who was sent 100 years ago to harvest your soul; but when I looked at you, so pompous, there was nothing there to take. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look at you!”

The Officer of the Law gasped and finally understood. Over­whelmed he said the sh’hecheyanu, “Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the universe, that You have kept me alive and sustained me, so that I could reach this moment.”

This has been a very hard year for many of us – suffering illness, having loved ones die, feeling the pain in the world around. Still, even in the shadow of difficulty, pain, or loss, we can consciously reflect upon the good in our lives and utter blessings – one a day, 100 a day, or any number in between.

Every night, before Shira and I go to sleep, we say at least one thing we were grateful for that day. I invite you to do that each Friday night during our gratitude prayer. My friend Lisa, whose husband Evan has stage four cancer, recently told me how blessed she feels: “The cancer has brought us closer, and it has allowed Evan to reconnect with family members from whom he has been estranged. Our community has shown us love and support.”

My colleague and friend, Rabbi Barbara Block shares this: “My yoga teacher likes to say, if you are alive, there is more that is right with your body than is wrong with it. I sometimes focus on the negative, on what is missing, on what hurts. It is good to pause to acknowledge that however hard things are, there is [still] so much that is good.”

May 5778 be a year in which we find, embrace, and utter aloud the many blessings that are in our lives. Shanah tovah.

 

[1]1726-1791

[2]Deut. 10:12,13

[3]Menachot 43b

[4]Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 12

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017
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