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Counting Our Blessings

Hadassah Magazine June/July 2008
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 the Sheheheyanu 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....

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 aliya blessing 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.