Parshat Yitro: The Blessed Event at Miami Beach

Picture it…Miami Beach, any year before 2020.  The sun is beating down, the sky is clear, and you are lying on the beach absorbing the rays, thoughts floating wherever they choose, and an older Jewish couple makes their way to the water.  You lazily watch as they walk slowly across the sand and enter the ocean.  They get into the water until it almost touches the bottom of the bathing suit (just before that spot where we all gasp), and each will now bend to splash a bit of water under the arms and onto the back of the neck.  It looks so mundane but it’s actually a very Jewish moment.  What makes it so Jewish is the very next thing that happens.  If you’re lucky to be close enough, you will hear the words: ‘What a mechayeh, oy a broch!’

The Jewish words we have used to express ‘what a life-enhancing moment, oy what a blessing!’  The life-enhancing moment is easily understood, since the sun is truly beating down mercilessly and no one wants to cook.  Why it’s a blessing is a bigger question.

As Jews, we have always said brachot (blessings), and true to who we are, we have always argued about what it means to say a bracha.

The word itself comes from the Hebrew word for ‘knee’ –what we would think of as ‘bend the knee’.  If we were to only look at the word itself, a bracha would be uttered in a moment that brings us to our knees.  A moment of such magnitude that we are unable to stand in that instant, we are so humbled, so overwhelmed.  Yet, most of our ‘bracha moments’ are mundane.  When I make a bracha over a piece of fruit, no matter how much I may love that fruit, I’m not sure it brings me to my knees.  And there are moments when I am overwhelmed and feel weak at the magnitude of the meaning of the moment, marriage, birth (to name two)…and yet, no bracha.  So the meaning of the word helps but doesn’t really open our understanding of a bracha.

One of the first disagreements about the meaning of a bracha sits in the intention of the words.  When I say, ‘Baruch ata Adonai’, am I stating a fact (God is blessed), or am I actively doing the blessing (I bless God)?  If I don’t bless God, is God still blessed?  If I am stating a fact about God, where is the action within my blessing?  Both questions prompt contrary views, and both views have their good arguments.  However, all opinions agree that a bracha is an expression of God as the source of all things –regardless of whether I am acknowledging it or actively blessing God for it.

We also agree that we should say a bracha when we feel we have been blessed by God, and God’s blessings always anchor through something that exists.  Jewish law tells us that when we are saying the Grace After Meals (Birkat haMazon), there should be bread on the table since God blessed us with a meal, and our answer to God (our blessing) acknowledges the physical anchor represented by the bread.  Every bracha opens layers and layers of awareness.

Our mystical Jewish selves will connect to the numerical value of the word bless (b-r-kh) noticing each letter is an expression of the number 2.  ‘Beit’ = 2, ‘Reish’ = 200, ‘Khaf’ = 20, making the full word equal 222.  In Judaism, the number one represents singularity (think singing ‘Who Knows One’ at the Seder), and the number two represents plural, amplification.  Now one of the layers of saying a bracha includes the subtle request to keep the good things coming.

With all those wonderful layers and meanings of a bracha, why not say them all the time, at every moment?  This is where Jewish text and structure begins to have a voice.  We are very careful about when we should say a bracha, because within the words is the invocation of God’s Name –and there’s the rub.  As told explicitly in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, which includes the Ten Commandments, we are never to take God’s Name in vain.  It’s the third commandment, and it doesn’t mean we should never curse, it means we should always intend the seriousness and relevance of invoking God’s essence into our human moments.  Because we must be aware of that intention, there are important moments in our lives when we minimize saying a bracha.  I once asked a rabbi why a person does not say a ‘Shehecheyanu’ bracha the first time they are sexually intimate.  The bracha itself thanks God for sustaining us long enough to arrive at an important moment in our lives.  We are told to say it even for mundane things such as wearing a new garment for the first time, because it is a tiny moment of achievement and joy.  How could we justify not recognizing the threshold of first sexual intimacy?  The rabbi asked me if I thought such a person has the ability to form intent at that moment.  I loved the truth of the answer, and I loved that he answered my question with a question.

Usually, when we think of the Ten Commandments, we think of the huge, world changing insights about monotheism, family structure, Shabbat, and the social contracts of societies.  We don’t often think that the third commandment, the one about God’s Name, is actually in our lives far more often than is the reality of crimes such as theft, murder, adultery or coveting.  The third commandment challenges us to recognize the amazing moments of each day.  What do we do when we feel blessed?

Today, the world is rolling out vaccines to keep everyone safe from Covid 19.  Israel is currently leading the world in its vaccination numbers, and it has opened the Jewish discussion about whether the person being vaccinated should say a bracha.  Most Jewish leaders around the world are in agreement that a bracha (or several) should be said by the recipient.  True to form, they disagree about which brachot to say.  There is agreement that a ‘Shehecheyanu’ is needed, but they disagree whether it should include God’s Name.  Some say the bracha for wisdom should be said, others say that after full immunization is reached, the bracha for being saved from danger should be said.  Wonderful discussions are being had about thanking God for putting the cures into nature before putting the diseases in, while we should also thank God for giving us the skills to look for the cures, and recognize them when we see them.  Of course, these arguments wouldn’t be complete without the follow-up arguments over which bracha should be said first.  People in Israel are saying brachot when they receive the vaccine, they’re not waiting for all rabbis to agree since the moment has already arrived.

Whether in Israel or not, we have arrived at the question of what do I thank God for first when there is so  much to be grateful for.  That is a moment that brings me to my knees.

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