Just before sunset on Erev Rosh Hashanah (the first night of the Jewish New Year), my Mom noticed that one of the pawpaws (from a tree we grew from seeds 15 years ago, that only gave its first fruit last year) was starting to blacken in one spot, and when I got close to it I realized that the distinct pawpaw smell was already filling the air, and the fruit was becoming soft. There were eight or nine pawpaws on the tree this year, but we’d been waiting for a sign that they were ready to be picked, and for this one piece of fruit, this seemed to be the sign. So we plucked it from the tree, and brought it inside, and said the Shehecheyanu blessing (the Jewish blessing for new experiences), before sharing the first new fruit of the year.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
It’s not so much that I believe God magically gave me a pawpaw just in time for the New Year, it’s more that I believe in the power of recognizing these moments of wonder in my life, as a way to remind myself that there will be many more of them in the future, in case I’m beginning to lose hope.
One of the new things I’m trying this year with my synagogue school students is a blessing a day – or, really, a blessing a week, because we only have Hebrew class once a week – and we started the year with the Shehecheyanu blessing, because it’s associated with the Jewish New Year, and because it gives us a chance to talk about all of the new things we are starting in our lives, and maybe feeling anxious and excited about at the same time.
I want the kids to know that there are hundreds of pre-set blessings that they can use, but also that they can create their own blessings, and celebrate things in their lives that are unique to them, or even just use words that have more meaning to them. For example:
I am so grateful that the new KN95 masks are cheaper and more plentiful than they used to be, so I can wear them all the time instead of relying on less protective masks.
I am grateful that people not only read my writing but invest in it enough to respond with their own thoughts.
I feel blessed when Ellie sees that I am in pain and comes over to lick my hand, to let me know she’s there with me and loves me.
I sense a power bigger than myself when I discover a new food/song/book that fills me with wonder and a sense of connection.
I feel like the sun is shining down on me when my students smile and laugh and really seem to enjoy being in my class.
For some reason, the girls in the class took to the Shehecheyanu blessing immediately and began fighting for the chance to stand in front of the classroom and give dramatic readings – as if they were on stage reciting Shakespeare. Who knew blessings could be so loud, and entertaining?!
I’ve been collecting blessings to teach to the kids this year, and of course I have to include the most used blessings, the ones over food, because the kids are always hungry! The Jewish food blessings are well documented – you’ll find yeshiva boys competing over who knows which blessing to say over which kind of food (for example, you have to say two different blessings for an ice cream cone, one for the cone and one for the ice cream!). I’m not a big fan of getting into the weeds of the pre-set blessings, but I appreciate that they exist and can give me a reference point for how to create my own blessings.
We often think of a blessing as something that is given to us – we are blessed by luck, blessed to be loved, blessed to survive a flood – but I like the idea of a blessing as what we say in response to that good fortune; so we’re giving the experience our own stamp, our own interpretation, to make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed, by us.
I specifically went looking for a blessing over putting on a face mask, because I needed a reminder that I’m still wearing one for a good reason, and I found a blessing (at ritualwell.org) written by Rabbi Michael Knopf that blesses God for commanding us to protect life (this actually is a commandment, called Pikuach Nefesh, where we are told to break many of the other commandments if it will allow us to save a life).
Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to protect life.
It’s sufficiently vague to use for all kinds of protective behaviors: like getting a vaccine, or wearing a mask, or forcing yourself to go for a regular checkup even when you really don’t want to.
There were also blessings on Ritualwell for taking off masks, and all sorts of other things that don’t already have existing blessings in the canon. I’m hoping that by the end of the year I’ll have a whole file of blessing from my students to send in to the website, because kids are really good at seeing the specifics of their lives and the wonder in the every day. I’ll teach them the blessings for seeing a rainbow, or meeting a wise person, or surviving a life threatening experience, and then it will be their turn to teach me: how to bless an endless session of playing video games, or sharing a peanut butter and pickle sandwich with a friend, or rolling down a snowy hill until you can’t breathe for laughing.
I can’t wait!
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?