Erev Rosh Hashanah-The Curse of Blessings

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 2018
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

Erev tov, good evening, if you have not yet met me, my name is Rabbi Philip Weintraub and I have been serving Congregation B’nai Israel for the last few weeks. It has been a blessing for me to be a part of this community and I look forward to getting to know more of you each year that I am here. For this evening, I want to share with you a story that changed my life.

Almost a decade ago, I found a small book of stories collected by Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz of Miami. The story I share now, The Curse of Blessings, shares its title with Rabbi Chefitz’s book, which remains on my desk to this day.

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The Curse of Blessings
There was an Officer of the Law, a recent graduate, proud as you can imagine, in his uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold epaulets. He wore a hat with a plume and a sword with a gold and ivory handle. He was as pompous as could e. He was arrogant and bold and callous. Every letter of the alphabet served only to demonstrate his authority and exalt his being.

One day he was walking his beat and heard a commotion in an alley. He ventured into the darkness, and there in the distance saw a man in rags. "Come forward," he commanded. "Come forward now!" But the man in rags did not come forward. "I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you, come forward!"

The man in rags did not move. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and spoke, "I don't know what I'm going to do with you."

"Do with me?" the Officer of the Law mocked. "Do with me? You don't do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward."

"Now I know what to do with you," the man in rags said, and as he spoke, he drew his sword. "Now I know what to do. Without further word he moved to attack.

The Officer of the Law drew his own sword in defense. "Stop that!" he ordered. "Put your sword down right now!" But the man in rags did not stop. The officer of the Law had to parry thrusts left and right. "Stop!" he said again, but to no avail. The officer of the Law was forced to retreat.

When it seemed the man in rags would prevail, he lowered his guard, and what the Officer of the Law had intended as a parry became a thrust. His sword ran through the man in rags. "I didn't mean that," the Officer of the Law said. "I didn't mean to hurt you. Why didn't you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?"

The man in rags waved the words away. "I am leaving you," he said, "and as I do, I put upon you the Curse of Blessings."

"What do you mean?" asked the Officer of the Law, now quite confused.

"The Curse of the Blessings. Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing, on that day you will die."

The man in rags closed his eyes. The Officer of the Law looked about for help. There was none to be found. When he turned back, the man in rags had disappeared. He was gone.

"It was a dream," the Officer of the Law thought. "Only a dream, I imagined it."

The time was late in the afternoon. The sun was setting. As much as the Officer of the Law tried to ignore his experience, he could not. The Jewish day ends with the sunset. The Officer of the Law felt his body growing cold and knew from the chill that his life was leaving him. In a panic, he uttered these words of blessing: "You are blessed, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has created such a beautiful sunset." At once warmth and life flowed back into him. He realized, with both shock and relief, the curse had been for real.

The next morning he did not delay. He woke with words of blessing. "You are blessed that You allowed me to wake up this morning." His life felt secure the entire day. The next morning he blessed his ability to rise from his bed, the following day, that he could tie his shoes.

Day after day he found abilities he could bless. That he could go to the bathroom, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hands still worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment. He blessed his house, the roof and floor, his furniture, every table and chair.

At last he ran out of things to bless, so he began to bless relationships. He blessed his family and friends, fellow workers, and those who worked for him. He blessed the mailman and the clerks. He was surprised to find they appreciated the blessings. His words had power. They drew family and friends closer to him. Word went out that the Officer of the Law was a source of blessing.

Years passed, decades. The Officer of the Law had to go farther afield to find new sources of blessing. He blessed city councils and university buildings, scientists, and their discoveries. As he traveled through the world he became in awe of its balance and beauty and blessed that. The more he learned, the more he had to bless. His life was long, and he had the opportunity to learn in every field.

He passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone. His time was relegated to searching for the purpose in his life and the one source from which all blessings flow. He had long since realized he was not the source but only the conduit, and even that realization was welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.

As he approached the age of one hundred and twenty, he considered that his life was long enough. Even Moses had not lived longer. On his birthday he made a conscious decision to utter no new blessing and allow his life to come to an end. Still he could recite old blessings, and throughout the day, he received them, all the blessings for his body and his possessions, for relationships that spread throughout the world, for the awesome beauty and balance of creation, and for the deep resonance, the pulse of purpose that pervaded his very being. But no new blessing passed his lips.

As the sun was setting, a chill progressed inward from his extremities. He did not resist it. In the twilight a figure appeared, the man in rags. "You!" the Officer of the Law exclaimed. "I have thought about you everyday for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me."

"You don't understand," said the man in rags. "You don't know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent a hundred years ago to harvest your soul, but when I looked at you, so pompous and proud, there was nothing there to harvest. An empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you've become!"

The Officer of the Law grasped in an instant all that had happened and why. Overwhelmed he said, "You are blessed, my God, ruler of the universe, that You have kept me alive and sustained me so I could attain this moment."

"Now look what you've done!" the man in rags said in frustration. "A new blessing!"

Life flowed back into the Officer of the Law, and he and the man in rags looked to each other, neither of them knowing quite what to do.

This is a brief story, yet it teaches a central lesson of Judaism--gratitude. We do not live in a perfect world AND we live in an incredible world. We live in the best of times AND the worst of times. Financial indicators are great, but not everyone is feeling flush. Jews are regularly in the White House AND anti-semitism is at its highest level in decades.

This story reminds us that there is always another way of looking at the world. We can live in a world full of ourselves and our shiny buttons or we can live in a world seeing the good in everyone else. We can share the blessings we have or keep them all to ourselves. These choices are ours on a daily basis.

What will life look like if we say a blessing every day? Will it last longer or will just enjoy it more? As we say many blessings over the next few days, I pray that they will fill our hearts with gratitude. The Unataneh Tokef says that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah (repentance, prayer, and justice/charity) avert the harshness of the evil decree, but maybe they allow us to cope, grow and learn from every obstacle in our path.