Counting Our Blessings
by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
This is a message about blessings. All too often, we take them for granted. I apologize for the length of this week’s message but believe in the power of recognizing the blessings in life.
At our first Kabbalat Shabbat this school year, I shared a Talmudic story of the two angels who accompany us home from synagogue on Friday evenings. The two angels, one good and one mischievous, have made a deal that when one gives a blessing, the other must answer Amen. If we walk home, finding a home full of Shabbat spirit (candles lit, table set, sweet smells of a Shabbat meal), the good angel says, “so may it be next Shabbat” and the mischievous angel says, “Amen.” But if we come home and the house is not prepared, or if there is arguing, the mischievous angel says, “so may it be next Shabbat” and the good angel says, “Amen.”
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, the Jewish people are divided onto two mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. The Levites then proclaim a list of curses that will be bestowed upon the people if they sin. Everyone answered “Amen” to each of the curses. Following the curses, there are a list of blessings, yet no Amen is recited after each, rather after the few listed blessings, come more curses.
In the summer of 2000, I went to a Levi requesting a blessing, to which I could say Amen. While I did not receive his blessing that day, I did not receive a curse. Rather, I was tasked with waiting a year and coming back with the same request.
I easily could have taken the lack of blessing as a curse. I could have taken it as a sign to give up. Instead, I spent that year examining my life and the life of those that I held dear. I spent the year growing spiritually and strengthening my resolve to earn the blessing.
A year later, I went back. The goal, I realized in having to wait, was in of itself his blessing. The following year, with the Levi’s blessing, I married his daughter and truly there has never been a bigger blessing in my life.
This past week could easily be construed as a curse. Our Levi, Jessica’s father, Chaim HaLevi ben Wolf v’Nechama, passed away on Tuesday evening. It could be easy for us to view these past years as Eddie’s Dementia took over our lives as a curse. What is has done however is help us all focus on our blessings
One of my favorite Jewish authors and storytellers is Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz. Rabbi Chefitz once told me that if you tell one of his stories enough times, it becomes one of your own. His book, The Curse of Blessings, comes to mind. Let me retell the story hoping that it will become my own.
Once there was a police officer who wore his uniform with pride and dignity. He walked his beat with a pompous attitude.
One day the officer was walking his beat when he came across a dark alley. In the alley, he saw a man. He told the man to freeze, but he would not. The man drew his sword. The officer drew his in defense. They began to fight. The officer begged the man, “Please stop, don’t make me do this.” Yet the man would not stop.
The officer began to overpower the man, who would not relent, and as they continued to fight, the officer’s sword found its way into the man, who fell to the ground.
The officer said to the man “Why didn’t you stop, I didn’t want to hurt you.” The man answered – “I now put upon you the curse of blessings. You must recite a new blessing each day, one that you had not said before. On the day that you do not say a new blessing, you will die.” And with that, the man disappeared.
Now it was getting dark, for the sun was about to set. The officer felt that his strength was leaving his body. He looked up, saw the sunset and recited a blessing, “Blessed is You, Hashem, who makes the sun set in the sky.” With that, his strength returned to him.
The next morning, he awoke and quickly recited a blessing, “Thank you Hashem for allowing me to wake up today.” Each day he awoke and found a new blessing. He said a blessing after eating, before eating, after going to the bathroom. He blessed each piece of food, each article of clothing, each action that he could take. After a while, he ran out of things to bless.
He then began to bless people. He blessed relationships, friends, co-workers. He soon became known as a man who could give blessings. He traveled the world giving blessings and people traveled the world to come to him to receive a blessing. Each day he continued the blessings that he had been saying, always remembering to add a new one.
As the years grew on, he grew older and more tired. As he neared his 120th birthday, he made the conscious decision to not utter a new blessing on his birthday, so that he could depart from this world.
On his 120th birthday, he went through his routine of blessings making sure not to add any new ones. As the sun was beginning to set (marking the end of the Jewish day), he saw the man with whom he had fought in the alley so many years before. He went up to the man. He apologized for fighting with him and asked the man, “Why did you make me do it? I never wanted to hurt you. I have been looking for you every day since.”
“You don’t understand?” replied the man. “You still don’t know who I am? I am the angel who was sent 100 years ago, to accompany your soul to heaven. But when I saw you, so pompous in your uniform, all I saw was an empty vessel, nothing worthy of taking to heaven. So, I put upon you the curse of blessings. Now look at what you have become.”
The officer realized what had been so hard to grasp for so many years. He looked at the man and said, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who has granted me life and sustained me and enabled me to reach this day”.
“Now look at what you have done.” said the man. “A new blessing.”
They looked at each other, neither knowing quite what to do.
My take home from this story is the importance of counting our blessings. A rabbi of mine used to say, what matters is not the counting of our days, rather it is making our days count.