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Count Your Berakhot – Vayyetze 5781

On this Shabbat haHodayah, Shabbat of Thanksgiving, I’m going to state the obvious: many of us might feel right now that there is not a lot to be thankful for in the world. 

The virus has taken off for what appears to be a colossal third wave, which, our Coronavirus Task Force authorities tell me, will likely not peak until (get this!) February. Many people were unable to gather with friends and family for the traditional American turkey seder last week. Even the seasonal Black Friday tradition of waiting in long lines to buy the latest cool seasonal gift was disrupted by this tiny, not-quite-living yet deadly thing. Unemployment and economic devastation continue.

And yet, Jewish tradition mandates that we offer words of gratitude every single day. 

Modeh ani lefanekha, we say every morning: Grateful am I before You. We put the modeh, the gratitudinous verb first, because that should be the first thing out of our mouths every morning. And Modim Anahnu Lakh, “Grateful are we to You… Rock of our lives and Shield of our salvation… for the miracles you perform for us all day long.” We have already said that twice this morning and will do so two more times in a few minutes.

There is a principle out there in Jewish life that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings a day. It is actually not so hard to reach that number if you recite the words of shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv; just the three recitations of the Shemoneh Esreh (the Amidah) in those daily services account for 3*19 = 57 berakhot alone.

That’s right: we count blessings. Count your berakhot, as the old saying goes. 

(I’m pretty sure that expression is a translation of a Medieval Hebrew slogan found on a fragment in the Cairo genizah adopted from a Babylonian Jewish Aramaic saying derived from ancient Akkadian texts, perhaps with a Sumerian origin.) (That’s a little humor for all you Biblical scholars out there.)

Count your blessings. Ironically, when we say that, we are implicitly remembering the curses! You count your blessings when you know that they are interspersed with misery and failure, because of course it is the misery and the failure that remind us how valuable, and how needed the blessings are.

In the beginning of Parashat Vayyetze, our hero Ya’aqov is fleeing from his brother Esav, from whom he has effectively stolen his father’s powerful blessing, the one reserved for the first-born child, which Ya’aqov is not. And he comes to rest for the night at a place called Luz, a place where he has a dream of mal’akhim – heavenly messengers – climbing up and down a ladder.

There is a midrash about the mysterious town of Luz, which pops up here and there in the Tanakh. The midrash says that Luz was a place that was only accessible by a secret cave entrance that the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death could not find, so people there lived forever. They only left when they were tired of living, and upon leaving the city walls, the Mal’akh haMavet would take them.

But of course, I think we can understand why living forever is not really a blessing. 

It must be something like hyperthymesia, of which I have spoken of before, which prevents the afflicted person from forgetting. He or she remembers every single thing: what you had for lunch on May 28th, 1997, what pair of socks you wore the next day, and the really, really embarrassingly stupid thing you said in public the day after that. The ability to forget is actually an under-appreciated blessing.

We count blessings that we see in opposition to, or delineating between the not-so-good parts of our lives. For example, being able to open our eyes in the morning, and to behold the morning light, those are berakhot / blessings that we actually recite every morning. During a pandemic, remembering these simple things every day can be truly powerful.

But that does not mean that we should ignore, or forget, the pain and suffering in the world or in our own lives. 

I recently came across a provocative piece in the online Jewish magazine Mosaic by Daniel Gordis, the Senior Vice President of Shalem College in Jerusalem. Dr. Gordis is a Conservative rabbi and the son of Rabbi Robert Gordis, one of the leading scholars of the Conservative movement in the middle of the 20th century.

The article is titled, “How America’s Idealism Drained Its Jews of Their Resilience.” Noting that while businesses in Israel that were bombed by terrorists during the Intifada re-opened within months, the Tree of Life building down the street remains damaged and empty, he uses this as evidence to deplore American non-Orthodox Jews for their effete non-resilience. 

Being on the ground here in Pittsburgh, I find Gordis’ argument distasteful. Never mind the faulty comparison between a for-profit business like a pizza shop and a synagogue, and the likelihood that he has no first-hand knowledge of the particularities of our situation here. Rather, this follows a pattern that Dr. Gordis has often taken: calling out of American Jews for their perceived weakness and lack of commitment, particularly in comparison to the vitality of Israel. 

Nonetheless, he makes a captivating point about one of my favorite moments of weekday services: tahanun.

Never heard of it? I understand. I did not know what tahanun is until I was in cantorial school, and that is mostly because, although my family and I were Shabbat-morning regulars, like many of you, we were rarely in synagogue for weekday services. But it was also because many Conservative synagogues (not Beth Shalom, BTW) and the Ramah camps stopped reciting tahanun in their weekday services in the middle of the 20th century. I presume that they did so as a time-saver, and also because, well, it’s sort of a let-down.

Tahanun, literally, “supplication,” etymologically related to the Hebrew word hen, meaning “grace,” is actually one of the four major modes of Jewish prayer, and usually refers to a selection of passages after the repetition of the Amidah that emphasize that we are sinful, and that we suffer due to our insufficient righteousness. It includes the lines that we all know as the dramatic, musical conclusion of “Avinu Malkeinu”: Have mercy on us, though we have no good deeds upon which to plead our case. In fact, tahanun reads something like a little slice of Yom Kippur, every weekday shaharit and minhah (morning and afternoon services).

And then there is this:

שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמוֹר שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאַל יֹאבַד יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֹמְ֒רִים שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל

Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not the people of Israel perish, the ones who say, “Hear O Israel.”

We are She-erit Yisrael, the remnant of Israel. We have suffered, and we continue to pray, to recite the Shema, to unify God’s name, to recite three times the words of qedushah, of holiness – Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh Adonai tzeva-ot / Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6:3, used in the qedushah part of every Amidah.)

Furthermore, the recitation of tahanun is marked by an act called, “nefilat apayim” – literally, falling on one’s face. When we recite the first part, it is traditional to put one’s head down into the crook of the weak arm (unless you’re wearing tefillin, in which case it’s the other arm), and recite these words of supplication in a position that suggests groveling. We are not proud of having sinned, and suffering for them; we are, in fact, ashamed. 

Nefilat apayim / נפילת אפיים / “falling on one’s face” during tahanun

So what Dr. Gordis posits is that the omission of tahanun by 20th-century non-Orthodox Jews, a standard piece of liturgy for perhaps a millennium, is evidence of “feel-goodism” in Jewish life, that we have emasculated Judaism by emphasizing only the blessings and not the curses. American idealism, suggests Gordis, has led us to forget the sense of dislocation, the “brokenheartedness” endemic to Jewish life. By omitting tahanun, he claims that we are in danger of forgetting our history of oppression and loss and hence our source of resilience:  

Hardship is not a break in the structure of Jewish history; it is an enduring feature of Jewish history. That is why Jewish resilience — enduring and overcoming hardship — is so noteworthy, and why understanding it is so critical in our own uncertain times.

His point is a decent one. Even as we count our blessings, we cannot ignore the hardship. That is the message of tahanun: it is, to some extent, the misery and failure that have enabled us to survive as She-erit Yisrael, to stick together as a people in tough times, to maintain our traditions and hold up our Torah in the face of anti-Semitic oppression and genocide, to build a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile and dispersion, and yes, to continue to thrive here in the New World. 

Those of you who have been to my Benei Mitzvah Family Workshop (mandatory for 6th graders and their parents) may remember that the 2013 Pew study of American Jews found that 73% said that “Remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me.” Only 19% of American Jews said that about “Observing Jewish law.” I still find the juxtaposition of those numbers staggering; if we are only Jewish to remember what Hitler did to us, then what are we?

But: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain, the blood libels and the pogroms and all of the ways that we have been persecuted and slaughtered and yes, the Shoah, they all remind us of how our ancestors grasped these words, these berakhot, and held aloft their Torah; these things have, somewhat ironically, kept this remnant together.

We need the berakhot. We count those blessings. But we cannot forget the pain and suffering either. It is the entirety of our history, and the entirety of our liturgy, that has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this very moment.

And so too the future.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/28/2020.)

Categories
Kavvanot

Urban Nature Walks 101

Sitting in my office for the first day at Congregation Beth Shalom, I caught sight of our ELC teaching staff being escorted outside the building by one of my personal rebbes, Dr. Gabe Goldman, nature educator par excellence and Pittsburgh-area resident. He took them on a walk around the building to seek out teachable locations for helping young children to explore the natural environment within our otherwise urban setting. Gabe coordinated instruction for the Jewish Environmental and Nature Education (JENE) fellowship program when I was a JENE fellow at Camp Ramah in New England back in the summers of 2004 and 2005, and he taught me volumes about Judaism and the environment, which continue to infuse my work as a rabbi.

view from office window
Gratitude: the view from my new office window

One of the items he shared with us back in the day was a phrase that I continue to use when I take groups out into nature, meant to be shouted out upon finding something special: “Mah rabu ma’asekha!” “How numerous are Your works!” It’s from Psalm 104:24, the Psalm that retells Creation by highlighting all of its elements, and we recite this verse as a part of the daily morning service. It speaks not only of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” our awe in response to the Infinite, but also of our gratitude for everything around us, for the air we breathe and the water that sustains us and the lush green of the trees and grasses and bushes and so forth.

As this new chapter in my life opens, I am grateful not only for God’s numerous works, but for all that my teachers have given me and all that I have learned merely by taking a closer look at what grows all around us. Go outside, take a deep breath, and enjoy the rest of summer. Mah rabu ma’asekha!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson