Lech Lecha: Make yourself a blessing

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Lech Lecha 10/20/18

What is a blessing? How do we share blessings? What makes a blessing effective?

When I was in my first unit of clinical pastoral education, I was at a hospital in Lawrenceville, GA. One of the other chaplain/seminary students came from a Korean Methodist background. From his perspective, the only way to have an effective blessing was to follow a formula that opened with “Father God” and closed with “In Jesus Name, Amen”. While Jews tend to be slightly less rigid, we are used to our formulas: “Baruch Atah Adonai../Praised are you God”.

Formulas make us comfortable. They help us organize our thoughts. They help us organize our prayers. Yet, sometimes, we need to get a little bit messy. Life isn’t always as organized as we might like. Things do not always happen the way we want them to. How do we respond to this uncertainty? In the Jewish tradition, we create structure around the messiness of life.

This photo is from the end of the Torah,
but the poetic form makes it relevant.
(photo by me)

Think about the Passover Seder. The purpose of the beginning of the Seder is to get someone to ask--why is this night different? Mah nishtana! Much of the beginning of our sedarim are experiments that different people did to see if they could get their family’s attention. They lifted up their tray tables, so we lift up our seder plates. They tore the matzah, so we tear the matzah. We took an unstructured conversation about our history and created an entire book and ritual around it. Sometimes that really helps and sometimes it does not. In some families, we do the exact same seder year after year. In others, the goal is to change. What works for some does not work for all.

The same is true with all prayer, with all blessings. We cannot assume that we will all connect in the exactly the same way BUT in order to be a people, we need common ground. Our liturgy gives us the opportunity to share personal prayer AND communal prayer, to weave together times of silence and singing, crying out and thanking God. While Noah did offer thanks to God on an altar last week, our tradition teaches that the origin of the Shacharit Amidah, the daily morning prayer is from Avraham, who thanked Gd every single morning.

This week our Torah portion opens:
(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ (ב) וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ (ג) וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃ 
(1) The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2)I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”

In those three opening verses we see the power of blessings. They are life-changing words for Avram. They are the Covenant, the Brit, the contract between Gd and the Jewish people. We discover that by tying our fate to Gd, we will receive benefit--strength, power, resources. Our fate is no longer random. We have control--simply by making the choice to be part of this blessing. Of course, we all know that this world does not always operate on reward and punishment for the righteous and the less righteous! Yet we do see the consequences of our actions. No action we take is inconsequential. We truly impact the universe in all we do--including through blessing and prayer.

People pray for so many different reasons, but ultimately, I pray to improve myself and the world around me. I pray to connect to Gd. I pray to feel the strength to get through a beautiful day or a more challenging one. When I pray, I use the language in our prayer books, our siddurim, as the starting point. The Hebrew words have been refined over thousands of years to reach into our hearts and open them up. They help break us down so we can build ourselves up again. While we pray in a sanctuary, in a place of peace and serenity, we are reminded that prayer and study must lead us outside these walls, too.

ואמר רבי לוי כל היוצא מבית הכנסת לבית המדרש ומבית המדרש לבית הכנסת זוכה ומקבל פני שכינה שנאמר (תהלים פד, ח) ילכו מחיל אל חיל יראה אל אלהים בציון
Moed Katan 29a 
And Rabbi Levi said: Anyone who leaves from the synagogue and goes to the study hall or goes from the study hall to the synagogue, i.e., he goes from the mitzva of prayer to the mitzva of Torah study or vice versa, merits to receive the Divine Presence, as it is stated: “They go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion”(Psalms 84:8).

For me, prayer and study are almost interchangeable. Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein, a brilliant scholar and former Chancellor of JTS, is quoted as saying “Prayer is when we talk to Gd. Study is when Gd speaks to us.” With that connection, I want to share another Talmudic text:

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול נענה ר"ע ואמר תלמוד גדול נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה.
Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action. [Soncino translation]

It sometimes feels that different parts of the Jewish world prioritize a single part of Jewish existence: Whether prayer, study or action are seen as the exclusive paths to Gd. I feel blessed to be a Masorti/Conservative Jew, to know that ALL of these need our energies. All of these paths need our help. All of these paths need our strength.

Considering the blessings of our holy community, our kehillah kedosha, I love our daily minyan. Having an opportunity to pray regularly, individually AND as a community, is a tremendous gift to all who attend--and all who do not make regular use of the minyan. I have been privileged to regularly attend morning minyan. Coming here and having that opportunity made me think about the times when I did not have that daily gift. While it did not change my desire or my ability to pray the morning blessings, not having the community was a big change. I did not feel that same kinship, that same feeling of blessing.

Returning to my opening questions, a blessing is a moment. It is the words that we use. It is a connection to God, Torah, and Israel. It is a tool for bringing kedushah, holiness, into this world. We share blessings with one another and with God through our words and our deeds. We speak words of blessing which should lead to positive actions in this world. To be effective, a word, a deed needs a certain level of intention. It needs our desire to improve ourselves, our world, to help God and one another. It needs our heart and soul. The words are powerful, but they need our help. Prayer and blessing feel most effective when they balance between the regular, the ordinary and the extraordinary. May these words inspire your prayers to become blessings.