Tag: Blessings

One blesses the bad as one blesses the good. One blesses the good as one blesses the bad.

Ever wonder how we as Jews might deal with the bad things that happen? In my inbox appeared this Torah Reflections on the Hebrew Month of Nisan, written by Dorothy A. Richman of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. Such wisdom here! [BTW: The month of Spring and of Passover begins as the Rosh Hodesh New Moon appears Monday evening, March 11, 2013.]

“One blesses the bad as one blesses the good. One blesses the good as one blesses the bad.”
—Mishnah Berakhot, Chapter Nine

Blessings are what we as Jews use to articulate our spiritual experiences. Just as lighting a candle with a blessing means that we are bringing light and holiness into our lives, so, too, do we make a spiritual moment out of a physical act when we say blessings before and after eating.

The possibilities for inspiring our blessings seem unlimited: gratitude for seeing the light of the morning (“Pokayah ivrim”: we bless the Creator who opens our eyes); praise for the garments which cover our body (Malbish arumim: we bless the One who clothes the naked); awe at the sight of the sea (Oseh ma’aseh b’raysheet: we bless the Creativity of Creation). There are traditional Jewish blessings for things we taste, do, smell, hear, see…the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that each person could offer a minimum of one hundred blessings each day.

Yet, as the quote from the Mishnah shows, we do not only make blessings over the joy or pleasure in our lives. If you hear good news, the proper blessing is Baruh Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Meleh ha-Olam, ha-Tov v’ha-Maytiv, Blessed are You, Creator of the Universe, Who makes the good and the even better! Upon hearing bad news, one says, Baruh Atah… ha-Olam, Dayan ha-Emet, Blessed are You…Judge of Truth.

Why does the Mishnah go out of its way to tell us that the bad requires a blessing, too? Why does it then repeat the idea, letting us know that the good is blessed in a similar way to the bad? In my experience, good news and bad news don’t necessarily come separately: every new beginning is an ending; every start is a farewell. Sometimes, the very things we have been praying for bring us pain; other times, things we would have given anything to avoid bring us blessing we could not have imagined. Perhaps when we bless the bad as we bless the good, we bless the possibility in each experience to bring us joy or pain. We bless the gift of the moment and at the same time we bless the gift of perspective, the sight which will only come later and interpret the experience as good or bad.

The month of Nisan is a month of special joy in our spiritual calendar. In it, we celebrate Pesah, the Feast of our Freedom, breaking physical and spiritual bonds into liberty and movement! Yet a day into this celebration, we enter the period of the ‘Omer, a time which many observe with mourning practices. Our joy and our grief come together, in the calendar and in our lives.

There is a special blessing which is traditionally said during the month of Nisan (beginning this year on the evening of March 11th). Upon seeing trees blossoming for the first time in the year, one says, Baruh Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha-Olam, shelo heesar b’olamo davar, u’vara vo briyot tovot v’ilanot tovim l’hanot bahem b’nay adam. Blessed are you….Who has withheld nothing from this world, and Who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for humans to enjoy.

The Nisan prayer is a prayer celebrating growth. We bless the Holy One whose world models for us seasons of turning in and turning out, moments of joy with moments of loss, a world where blessing is in the good and the bad.

This Nisan, may we find blessings in the moments we have, and may we find many moments to offer blessings.

Shehecheyanu: Celebrating Newness and blessings

My all time favorite prayer is Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer for first time events. We say it whenever something new happens. Given the Jewish penchant for finding blessings in each moment of life, this prayer is also recited the first time something happens in a given year. Like holidays. I have sweet memories of singing it with my kids when teeth fell out, when we jumped in the pool for the first time each summer, and when we began school years.

Here Congregation Or Ami’s Chorale sings the Shehecheyanu as we begin Rosh Hashana evening services.  As you listen to the beautiful tune, consider what you count as your most important Shehecheyanu moments of this past year. 

Counting the Blessings – Kvell, don’t Kvetch

Gathering at Michelle’s home, we enjoyed a delicious brunch and we got down to work. Fifteen of us, enjoying Brunch with the Rabbi, were about to engage in one of the most important acts a Jew (or any person) can do. One at a time, we each shared a “kvell,” something in our lives at the moment, which brings us joy or pride. A child graduating, a teen getting his license, a mother recovering well. Completion of a project at work, moving into a new home, a child assuming a leadership role. We clapped for each other, sometimes laughing in joy or relief.

These kvells – a.k.a. these moments of blessing – were especially poignant because they were being shared by people who otherwise had plenty to kvetch (complain) about. In that room were people facing financial challenges, caring for a dying parent or a special needs child, or recovering from a very difficult surgery. Yet in the midst of the anxiety and worry, they each found the courage to number their blessings in their lives. So Jewish an action. All of us can do this. Counting our blessings.

This week, the Jewish community will read a section of Torah (the Five Books of Moses) that includes Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction). We will recite “Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishm’recha – May God bless you and watch over you. May the Holy One shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God be with you always, and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). With these ancient words, the ancient religious leaders blessed the people. With these words even today, parents bless their children on Friday night, and Rabbis and Cantors bless wedding couples and Bar/Bat Mitzvah students.

The Priestly Benediction combines hopes for protection with recognition that peace and wholeness is within our grasp. In our Brunch discussion, we realized that blessings are all around us and within our lives. The challenge is to notice them – to name them – even as we deal with the tsuris (the problems) of our lives.

Shai Peretz, a Montreal-based learner, noted that the word “blessed” comes from the Hebrew root “b.r.ch.”, which has an additional meaning of “to graft” (“le’havrich“). Grafting in winemaking involves taking a new vine shoot, and attaching it to older roots. The new vine connects to the old root system and gains nourishment and life. The act of grafting in essence returns the shoot to its source, to its roots, and allows it to mature on its own.

When we count our blessings, we graft ourselves onto the deep roots of existence. Our goodness – the goodness that exists within us and that comes to us – which derives from the ultimate Source of Goodness, from the Holy One of Blessing, can nourish us and help us grow.

So here’s some spiritual homework:

Each day, for the next week, before you go to bed, write down three wonderful things that happened in your life that day. Count your blessings every day and may you will soon find yourself kvelling more than you ever imagined.

Omer Day #2: Kvell, Don’t Kvetch

Today is day #2 of the Omer, that counts (and recounts) the journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. We embark onward, toward our selves.

Today, we think about kvetching and kvelling.

Kvetching is that typically Jewish act of complaining, loudly and regularly about things big and small.  We kvetch about our families.  We kvetch about our kids.  We kvetch about our jobs, spouses/partners, the economy, the government… everything. Our biblical ancestors kvetched during their desert trek about the food, the lack of water, the danger from enemies, about Moses’ leadership.  Such a typical Jewish act, and yet, kvetching is profoundly the antithesis of what it means to be authentically Jewish.

To be a Jew is to be a kveller!  Kvelling means to praise.  Kvelling lets others know that good things are happening. It leads us to count our blessings.  We could be praising the important things: our health, our relative wealth (we always have more than others somewhere), the roof over our heads, the community of which we are part… The ancient rabbis teach us that we should say 100 blessings each day.  I try to teach that we should try to count 3 or 12 or 18 things each day that are blessings in our lives.  3 or 12 or 18 things worthy of kvelling about to ourselves and others.

We have an easier time kvetching than kvelling.  Yet as we journey forth toward Sinai, let’s be the blessing God intended us to be.  We can make strides in that direction but counting blessings as we count the days.  We can go the distance by distancing ourselves from kvetches.

Today is day two of the Omer.  Begin counting your kvells! (And let me know how it feels).

I Almost Made Myself Cry at the Bar Mitzvah

There we stood, Rabbi and three generations of the Tillis family, preparing to physically pass down the Torah midor lador (from generation to generation).  This primarily Reform Movement tradition makes manifest what is happening in fact and deed: that another young adult is receiving Torah from his ancestors.  At the end of this line of stood a young man Jared, who though he spent his life challenged by special needs and multiple treatments – a rare form of non-convulsive epilepsy, speech therapy, vision therapy, challenges reading and decoding – now stood ready to do what every other 13 year old boy does.  Jared was becoming a Bar Mitzvah. 

I looked out at the crowd of family and friends.  On their faces I saw utter amazement; reflected in their eyes was the wonder that this young man, in spite of all the challenges he faces, had led the prayer service so beautifully.  His Bar Mitzvah teacher, the incomparably talented Diane Townsend, had been by his side, pointing to each transliterated syllable so that he could chant the prayers at his own pace.  Too see how creatively she had retransliterated each word in a way that it would be comprehensible to this specific Bar Mitzvah boy is to witness a master teacher at work.  Yes, we had already each experienced that Shehecheyanu moment, that blessed happening that reminds us all that we were just touched by the miraculous. 

What words could I say which would further capture the holiness before us?  And how to do it in such a way that everyone would understand on their own level: the Bar Mitzvah boy in his specifically special manner of comprehension and the guests who had been touched by the Transcendent? 

We are taught that Torah was revealed in 70 languages at once so that each person could comprehend it.  Who is to say that which languages they were?  Perhaps some were the language understood by a child with special needs. Maybe the simple concepts that a profoundly challenged child could comprehend.

So I told them: We are taught that Torah was given to everyone at Mt. Sinai: the rich and the poor, the strong and the less strong, the healthy and the sick.  Yes, even those who stuttered (Moses), were leprous (later, Miriam), or were beaten down by the challenges of their lives (all the Israelites) received the Holy Torah.

I reminded them, lovingly, that sometimes we doubt who was able to receive Torah, but that as long as there are people who believe (I looked at Mom and Dad and older sister), everyone can grasp hold of the holy books. 

I said a bunch of other words too, but as I looked out at the congregation, seeing not a dry eye in the sanctuary, I started to choke up too, and mumbled something that I cannot remember anymore.

Then we passed Torah down midor lador (from generation to generation) completing the cycle.

Worshippers were moved.  One said, “Jared’s service was the most moving and touching ceremony I have ever been to” while another explained that she “will never forget Jared’s amazing ability to turn an ordinary ritual into a meaningful event that we will carry in our hearts forever.”  

I am left with three profound memories of this Bar Mitzvah service:

  • That this young man, standing on the shoulders of all the Jews who came before him, became a Bar Mitzvah just like the best of them;
  • That we are blessed to have a teacher as skilled as Diane Townsend who finds a way to point each child – no matter how challenged, no matter how reticent – toward Torah;
  • That the Holy One of Blessing (God) blessed us this day by allowing each of us to experience the transcendent holiness of this Bar Mitzvah. 

…Shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higee-anu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You, God … for giving us life, for keeping us in life, and for bringing us to this special moment. 

(BTW, the other Bar Mitzvah boy earlier that day made me proud, amazed, and inspired.  Because he was special too. Not special needs.  Just special, like every child is special.  But that’s another blog post.)

Congregation Or Ami exudes openness and welcoming of families with children with special needs.  Read about it.

2010 – New Year, Time to Count Blessings

As 2010 is underway, we have a 5 hour drive remaining from Palo Alto to home, so we tale this time to enumerate the blessings and joys of 2009:We Still have 4 grandparents who have very close relationships with our kids.
We still in love and enjoy being married to each other.
We still have 3 wonderful hildren who are growing and maturing in positive ways and who still love being Jewish.
We all have our health.
We both work in vibrant Jewish communities that we are proud to be part of and to be representing.
We have long friendships spanning two to four decades with people whom we don’t always see regularly but when we do they energize and sustain us.
We have made new close friendships in the past decade.
Our home is comfortable, dry and filled with our kids and their friends who like to sleep over.
We had an opportunity to travel extensively through the country – 20 states in 31 days in one minivan. We were hosted by good friends. We saw beautiful and intersting parts of our nation which inspired us.
Our baby became a Bar Mitzvah, making us very proud and bringing so many family and friends together
Our eldest applied to colleges and while we await answers, she made us proud by her perseverence and improved essay writing.
Our middle one became president of the temple youth group, evidenced significant leadership and growth.We look forward to the start of a secular new year and a new decade.
May this one bring more truth, promise and honesty than the last.What are the blessings you count from 2009?