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Writing Our Own Blessings

 

There’s a long list of blessings in the Jewish tradition, most of which are over food. The official purpose of saying blessings in Judaism, according to Wikipedia, is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessings, and to transform everyday actions and occurrences into religious experiences. There are blessings on giving charity, and hearing thunder and seeing lightning, on smelling a fragrance, or seeing a rainbow (though that last one is focused on blessing the memory of the covenant between God and the Jewish People, which isn’t really what’s exciting about rainbows). There are blessings for seeing the ocean, or the blossoming of trees, or undergoing a medical procedure, or crossing an ocean, or being released from prison. There are blessings you’re supposed to say each morning, to thank God for straightening the bent, and releasing the bound, and opening the eyes of the blind, and “making me a man.” There is an alternate blessing for women to say, but, spoiler alert, it’s not equivalent to the blessing for men. There are blessings on seeing a miracle, and on receiving good or bad news, and then there’s the blessing thanking God for not making me a Goy (non-Jew), which I just refuse to say.

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“Hey, what’s that about?”

My question is: are these existing blessings sufficient to fill our needs? Every blessing in the canon was written by a human being, at a certain time and for a certain purpose. If the blessings we say throughout the day impact how we feel about our lives, it only seems fair that we should have some control over what they will be. I want to feel empowered to say the blessings that mean something to me, today, and not be stuck repeating what generations of men have seen as worthy of gratitude.

First of all, I want to be able to alter existing blessings when they don’t work for me. For example, I would change the blessing over rainbows so that it focuses on the beauty of a rainbow, or on the hope that leprechauns and gold coins will appear at the end of it. And since I can’t say the thank-god-I’m-a-man blessing and I refuse to say the thank-god-I’m-not-a-Goy blessing, I need to find alternatives. Maybe, thank God people are all different so we don’t get bored with all of the sameness, or, thank God I am the specific person I am, whoever that may be.

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“That sounds much better.”

I like the idea of spontaneously expressing gratitude when good things happen, even if those good things don’t fit into some universal pattern. Ellie might say Thank you God for giving me a mommy who knows that I want chicken right now. And Mom might say, Thank you, universe, for this little bird who landed on my window sill to eat the leftover matzah from Passover that the other birds ignored. And for me, Thank God I have enough pens and yellow narrow-ruled legal pads to write down all of my random thoughts.

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“Did you say chicken?”

            I feel strongly, though, that we should be allowed to acknowledge that life is complicated, and that I can feel more than one thing at a time, without cancelling out the gratitude. I’d call these the “Thank you, but…” blessings, as in, Thank you, God, that I can still walk, even though my hips ache on rainy days, and I have to take pain killers and wear orthotics in all of my shoes; thank you for helping me tolerate people who disagree with me, even though they are still, clearly, wrong; thank you for giving me a nervous system that is extra sensitive to smells and sounds and feelings of all kinds, even though it makes me feel awful half the time; thank you for the joy I feel when I hear a bird singing outside my window, but, you know, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I’d rather be sleeping. And of course, thank you, God, for this piece of chocolate, but next time could you make it Godiva?

            I also want blessings that can acknowledge pain as part of my life: Thank you God for seeing me in my pain, accepting me as I am, and knowing that I am doing my best; thank you God for making it rain on a day when I feel like crying; thank you God for sitting next to me in the muck and not being in such a hurry to leave; Thank you for hearing me when I’m angry and sad and confused, as much as when I’m happy and inspired; Thank you God for teaching me the power of kvetching; blessed art thou, oh lord, our god, ruler of the universe, for not giving a f**k that my hair is a mess today.

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“Stop talking about my hair!”

            And I need some aspirational blessings, to help me imagine that things can improve: may we, one day, remember what it’s like to wake up to actual birds chirping instead of to twitter alerts; may God, or the force, be with me during my exam so that I don’t forget everything I learned in a fog of anxiety; may we all learn to hear one another with empathy and compassion, even when we do not understand.

            And last but not least, because it’s the category we usually think of when we think of blessings, I need some more blessings that celebrate wonder and gratitude, like: a blessing for every time I see a new tree or bird or flower; a blessing on making a new friend, or having an “aha” moment. A blessing for pushing myself one centimeter further into a stretch, or being able to stand up again after sitting on a low chair, or having enough tissues during allergy season. A blessing for practicing a musical instrument, or taking medication that actually works, or reading a good book, or having a nice phone call, or receiving a kind email. A blessing for the ability to think for myself, and a blessing for the miracle that is chocolate mousse.

But I still have a lot of questions about blessings, and the role they play in our lives. Why do some people find deep meaning in saying blessings all day long, and others find it tedious? Is there still value in saying blessings even if you don’t believe in God? Is there a right way or a wrong way to say a blessing, and if I say the “wrong” blessing will it make me feel worse?

The dogs seem to say blessings throughout their day, like when Cricket sighs a deep sigh as she stretches herself out across Grandma’s lap, or when Ellie flies off the steps to chase a squirrel. They haven’t told me who they say their blessings to, or if they believe in God or some other universal force, and I have no idea if there are words attached to the blessings they mutter to themselves all day long, but it makes them happy. I can see how meaningful it is to them, to acknowledge, with a sound or a smile or a stretch, how wonderful they feel when they smell chicken in the air, or when they scratch their backs on the rug. They are fully present in the moment and acknowledge their gratitude, but also their disappointment and grief, all at the same time. Taking that extra second to acknowledge it all seems to really work for them.

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“Aahhh.”

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Some blessings don’t need words.

 

I wonder if there is a collection of blessings that dogs have access to that helps them find the exact right thing to bless, because I could use something like that. But, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find any of their blessings in a prayer book. They just know what they are feeling, and feel free to say it to whoever might be listening. That seems like a good place to start.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

 

 

100 Blessings a Day

 

Recently, apropos of something else, my Rabbi mentioned that there is a custom in Jewish life to try and say one hundred blessings a day. Of course, I had to look this up right away. Despite a childhood in Jewish day schools, I had never heard of this one – which means nothing, really, because there’s too much for any one person to learn in a lifetime, let alone in elementary or high school.

There are text-based reasons for the choice of one hundred as the magical number of blessings, but that’s not what interested me. I tend to think you can find text based excuses for anything if you try hard enough. But the idea of one hundred blessings sounds whole and beautiful and challenging enough to encourage the kind of gratitude Oprah used to talk about with her gratitude journals. Saying a blessing is more than just gratitude, it’s a way to make yourself aware of the world around you.

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“Only a hundred blessings? Not a problem.”

The more Orthodox websites said that you could meet your hundred blessings a day quota simply by saying the three set prayer services (morning, afternoon, and evening prayers), plus blessings over meals and handwashing, and you’re golden. But, what if you are a liberal Jew and not up to praying three times a day? Can you still reach an adequate blessing count?

I feel too resentful saying many of the blessings in Hebrew, especially in the formal language of the prayer book, but what if I could make up my own blessings, about the many things that really do jar me from the mundane into the extraordinary every day?

If you are somewhat compulsive in the handwashing arena, you could knock off dozens of blessings a day on that. You could get a lot of blessings in by hanging out with a friend who has allergies and saying Gezuntheit (God Bless You) every time she sneezes. You could eat many small meals a day, to have the chance to say blessings over food over and over again: Thank you God for this Jelly bean that I am about to eat; Thank you God for this piece of chocolate that has saved me from yelling at strangers in the parking lot.

How about: Thank you God for this medication that lowers my blood pressure and keeps my heart pumping; or, Thank you God for this crossword puzzle that allows me to not think about Donald Trump for ten whole minutes; or, Thank you God for the smile on my puppy dog’s face when I say the word “chicken.”

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“Chicken?”

Trying to come up with one hundred blessings a day forces you to think about what you really feel grateful for on a daily basis. There are formal Hebrew blessings for tons of things: for fruit, bread, wine, and cake; for thunder and rainbows; and for the ability to go to the bathroom (Blessed are you, Lord, Our God, King of the universe who created man with many openings…if one of them were to be ruptured or blocked it would be impossible to survive).

Here’s one of mine:

Thank you God, the Universe, and Mother Nature, for the water I drink, the food I eat, the bed I sleep in, and the puppies who make me laugh every single day.

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Amen.