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Lech Lechah: To Be Blessed

12/22/2022 09:47:12 AM

Dec22

Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

What does it take, to be able to step out into the unknown, and go forward with faith that somehow everything will work out ok?

Cantor Barbara shared with our staff this week that many years ago, she was going through a very tough time in her life, and she asked her rabbi for guidance. He told her to remember Lech Lechah - God's command to Abraham. Leave your home and everything you know, and go to some unknown place. Internalizing Abraham's faith got her through that rough time.

It is very hard to go forward, when you cannot see the light ahead. 

Not only did God not tell Abraham where he was leading him - "to the land that I will show you" - by my read of it, he was also vague about what the reward would be once he got there.

You will be a great nation. I will make your name great. Ok, that I get. But "I will bless you"? "You will be a blessing"? "The nations of the earth shall bless themselves by you"? What does any of that really mean?

I know that's a strange question for a rabbi to ask. I offer people blessings all the time. Receiving a blessing is powerful - I see it in the way people respond when I bless them. I've felt it, when other have blessed me. But I'm still not totally clear on what it means to be blessed. 

The way I phrase my blessings, it seems like I'm calling God's favor down onto the person.

In fact, my atheist teenagers scoff at me when I say we are blessed, for just that reason. "We're not blessed", they say. You think all this privilege is because God cares about us more than other people? We're just lucky," they say.

But the vast majority of Jewish blessings are framed in the opposite direction. We offer blessings to God. 

Baruch Atah Ado-nai, Blessed are You Ado-nai - who created the fruit of the vine, who brings bread from the earth, who sustained us and brought us to this day...

For many, many years - and sometimes even nowadays, depending on whom I'm talking to - when someone asked me "How are you?" I would respond, "Baruch Hashem", God is Blessed. It's the standard response in certain circles.

My friend Doody has a little joke about that. I've spoken about Doody in a few past sermons. He's an Israeli-American, a professional taxi driver who was very down on his luck, and came to live with my family for about seven years. Before we rescued him from homelessness, he had this snarky cynicism about all things religious. A kind of arrogant, in your face secularism that's very common among a certain sector of Israelis. I was not put off by it, though, because he was able to differentiate between his respect for me personally, and his disrespect of my religion in the abstract.

But whenever I asked him - מה נשמע - How are you? He would always respond - ברוך אשם. Not Baruch Hashem - Blessed is God - but Baruch Ashem - The Blessed is guilty. 

Because in Doody's case, his deep dislike of religion was not just a reflection of the ugly polarization in Israeli politics. Many "secular" Israelis hate organized religion, but have a deep, spiritual relationship with God. Not Doody. Whatever faith he may have once had was killed along with the young men he was commanding during the Yom Kippur war. He was 21 years old, they were all 18 or 19, and he saw them all die when they stumbled onto a minefield. 

In the beginning of our friendship, when he was driving me to the airport at a base bargain rate just because he liked me, we would share a naughty laugh at his pun. After his financial situation became desperate and he moved into our garage, he would still respond Barcuh Ashem, but with a darkness in his voice. We wouldn't even bother to laugh any more. 

Doody is an artist. He works in paint and in clay and in digital forms, and all of his art is abstract, with very detailed designs. His clay pieces in particular take many hours of painstaking work. I have two of his vases on my mantle at home, one of his paintings framed in our living room, and several other paintings stashed away in closets. But these were all produced at least a decade ago.

During the seven years that he lived in our garage, Doody did not produce a single piece of art.

Looking back on it, his Baruch Ashem - the Blessed is guilty - was much more than just a pun. It was a description of his state of mind. Doody felt cut off from all joy. He was in physical pain, due to deteriorating health. He was haunted by memories from his past. He felt isolated, and he increasingly isolated himself. By the end of his stay with us, he almost never left the house. 

Doody did not just feel himself to be unfortunate. He felt himself to be unblessed. 

When we decided it was time for him to leave our home, there were so many reasons why he did not want to go. Big reasons and small ones, at the heart they came down to the same thing. He was scared. His living conditions on our property were not good. He and his dogs were sharing our unfinished garage, and it can't have been comfortable. But it was familiar, and in his unblessed state Doody could not face the unknown. 

My husband David and I had to hold his hand through the entire move, right down to my driving him to Arizona and unloading his van for him. But when we got there, for the first time in years he looked happy. We had helped him purchase a mobile home using a small inheritance he had received from his mother. His dignity and sense of self were restored by having his own place to live. 

He immediately became friends with his next door neighbors. He never said two words to our next door neighbors when he was living with us. He's made best friends with the handyman whom the realtor has recommended to us. And, Doody is creating art again. Almost a new clay piece every day, and he has more new friends who have been buying his art because, as he reported in a recent text: "It's what they see and believe that I'm the most talented artist they ever met, I a little agree with them, I'm surprised myself. "

But what blew me away in the last few weeks - Doody has several times texted to thank me and David for being a blessing. Don't get me wrong. He has always, consistently been grateful to us. But to use such overtly religious language! To call us a blessing! It's like he's a different person. 

Last week, Doody texted to tell me about a gift his handyman friend had given him. At the end of the long text, he wrote: "I'm blessed"

I texted back, "Truly you are blessed!"

And, Doody shot back: "Amen"

Perhaps God's promise of blessing for Abraham was not precisely a reward for his faith. Perhaps it was the perquisite for faith. I don't know if anyone is capable of stepping into the dark unknown if they feel they are alone. Perhaps to be blessed is to be aware of whatever amount of goodness you have in your life, and to experience that godness as a connecting force between you and someone else - perhaps another person, perhaps God. Blessing is connection. When you are blessed, you never feel yourself to be alone.

On the words "והיה ברכה", and you shall be a blessing, Rashi explains: "The blessings are given into your hands. Until now, they were in My (God's) hands. I blessed Adam and Noah. But now you will bless whoever you desire." Blessing is like love. It cannot exist in isolation. It only exists to be shared.

We all have to face many unknowns in life. Let us be here for each other. As descendants of Abraham, let us each be a blessing. As we walk into the uncertainties of our future, let us be strengthened by our connections to one another. May we all be blessed.

Sat, February 4 2023 13 Shevat 5783