Commentary: Counting Our Blessings
The Talmud teaches that a person who enjoys the pleasures of this world without reciting a blessing is like a thief who steals from God (Berakhot 35a). So the rabbis composed blessings for every imaginable event. Some are familiar, such as Ha-motzi on bread or theSheheheyanu we recite on momentous occasions. Others are less familiar: on seeing a rainbow or the ocean or hearing thunder. We can even express gratitude for the fragrance of a rose.
As a rabbi, I once had the occasion to recite a rare blessing. Because of the convoluted history of European Jewry and the changes in what was once Yugoslavia, I officiated at a bat mitzva where the girl’s grandmother was the queen of Serbia. I invited the queen and her husband, the king, to the bima to recite a prayer for peace. Afterward, the cantor and I led the congregation in the blessing on seeing a king, thanking God “Who has given of His honor to flesh and blood.”
Imagine having the remarkable opportunity to recite this—in a Long Island synagogue! (S.Y. Agnon recited this blessing when accepting the Nobel Prize for literature from King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden; and when the late King Hussein of Jordan visited Israel, Hasidic Jews rushed to see him for this purpose.) Why did rabbis living under the tyranny of Roman emperors compose such words? Perhaps because by reciting them we demonstrate that while the body might be enslaved, our soul is set free by our expression of gratitude.
Most unusual of all the blessings are those said on seeing people who appear strange, in some way disabled. Again, it is extraordinary that rabbis composed words of thanks for a situation when one might not feel thankful. After all, they knew that, in that moment, our thoughts might be less than noble (i.e., thank God it is not me). Just when our reaction would be less than ideal, they taught us to recognize everything as a blessing, even when they appear to be the opposite.
I followed the rabbis’ counsel at Sam’s bar mitzva. An autistic boy with significant special needs, Sam fidgeted about the bima, picking at his talis, which agitated him at times. In lieu of a sermon, he read brief explanations of drawings of the Torah portion. Still, he touched the tzitzit to the exact place in the Torah and then recited the aliyablessing from memory. The congregation sang “Siman Tov,” but it did not seem appropriate to wish him the threefold hope of Jewish success: Torah, huppa and ma’asim tovim (good deeds). Instead, I recited the blessing: “Barukh Ata…meshaneh ha-beriyot, Blessed are You… Who makes the creations different” (Berakhot 58b). I did not know what else to say. Perhaps I should just have cried along with his parents.
But these ancient words seemed most appropriate to the occasion. They insist that we be grateful, that we thank God for what we have. Curiously, I stumbled over the words of the blessing. In Hebrew, a direct object is often separated from the verb by the untranslatable word et. This blessing lacks that. My sense of Hebrew grammar wanted to add the word, but the tradition codified the blessing without it. So I stammered. Then the blessing’s true import occurred to me: Perhaps the blessing is intentionally broken. Let those who are so at ease with the words of Hebrew blessings stumble.
Perhaps the purpose of this blessing is not to make me whole and force me to think of the perfect God and the extraordinary variety of His creation, but instead to make me broken and realize my imperfection. In that moment, Sam was not broken. In that moment of brokenness, I was the student and the young boy the teacher.