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From the Rabbi – Making Blessings, Washing Hands and Staying Home

In that great compendium of Jewish wisdom called Talmud, we read that a person should make 100 blessings a day:

תניא היה ר’ מאיר אומר: חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום שנאמר (דברים י:יב) ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך

It was taught in a baraita, Rabbi Meir used to say: A person must bless one hundred blessings every day, as it says (Deuteronomy 10:12): “Now Israel, what (mah) does God ask of you?” – Don’t read “mah” (what) rather “meah” (100). (Menachot 43b:15)

The rabbis of the Talmud (200 BCE – 400 CE) came up with blessings for consuming food, for doing ritual activities, for appreciation of nature, for studying Torah, and for hearing good or very sad news.  Our blessing for very sad news says, “Blessed is the Holy One, Judge of the truth – Baruch Dayan Emet.” The rabbis were suggesting that what looks like a very sad event to us might look different from God’s perspective.  The rabbis were not suggesting that the Divine is unsympathetic to our suffering, but that the Divine vantage point is radically different from ours.  Most historians focus on a particular era and region. Scholars in the emerging field of macro-history look at the big sweep of world events.  A good example is the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  We could imagine HaShem as the ultimate macro-historian.  

In a time of global crisis we might ask ourselves, “What does the Unfathomable Source of Life expect from this magnificent experiment of life on earth, especially this human experiment?”  Or in more traditional terms, “How does Ratson HaShem, Divine Will, manifest in this situation?”

So far the number of deaths from the virus is relatively low when compared with loss of life through ongoing warfare and poverty across the globe and gun violence here in the U.S.  But in dealing with Covid-19, the world is keeping careful count, with the World Health Organization tracking infections and fatalities.  Generally we reserve the blessing “Baruch Dayan Emet” for hearing or sharing news of a personal loss.  As we strive to slow down a potentially devastating pandemic, we might benefit from saying, “Baruch Dayan Emet” as we hear or read the latest numbers, acknowledging that we are one global family.

Also in Talmud we read: 

שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. 

Anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4)

Not many of us are in life-saving occupations where we know that our actions can make a difference between life and death.  But in dealing with the new coronavirus, by washing our hands frequently (don’t forget to wipe down your phone, too!), and practicing strict social distancing, we can prevent the spread of the infection and protect the lives of family, friends and strangers. As the rate of infection increases exponentially every day, the prudent course of action is to STAY HOME FOR ALL BUT CRITICAL EVENTS for the next two weeks at least. We all can and must do this! 

As we struggle with the emotional and practical impacts of this pandemic, I want to suggest that we also increase the number of our blessings of gratitude and appreciation. This will help keep our spirits strong.  The blossoming of flowers, trees and shrubs is a source of joy at this season.  The new growth of plants, the budding out of leaves — it’s all a magnificent springtime spectacle that doesn’t require a big cheering crowd or a studio audience, just an observant eye and a grateful heart.  I recently returned from a short trip to the Bay Area.  I decided not to go to the yoga classes I usually enjoy in Berkeley, but to spend my time walking instead. And oh, such beautiful walks, with all the luxurious vegetation and exquisite fragrances of spring!  The full moon of Purim shone down and, despite the world’s troubles, I felt completely joyful.  

It’s not necessary to know the traditional Hebrew phrasing to make a blessing.  A simple thank-you will do, or any heartfelt words of appreciation.  But say them frequently!  Saying them out loud reinforces the feeling of gratitude, and gives those near you a chance to say, Amen!  Make blessings when you get up in the morning, when you lie down at night, and all day in between, noticing all the wonders we take for granted, all the things that are still working just fine, all the nourishing food, all the benefits, strengths and joys that course through our days and years.  In this way, despite the rising tide of fear, we each can become reservoirs of shalom, of peace and wholeness.

B’shalom,

Rabbi Naomi