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Lech Lecha 5769-2008

“A Blessing on Your Head”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Blessings play a key role in Judaism. Not surprisingly, there are a vast number of them in Jewish life.

There are blessings for pleasure that are recited before eating or drinking. There are blessings for a mitzvah, such as those made when putting on tefillin, affixing a mezuzah, reciting the Shema, studying Torah or wrapping oneself in a talit. There are blessings that are recited on specific occasions, such as the blessing for the creation of fire that is part of the Havdalah ceremony on Saturday night, the blessings over Sabbath and holiday candles, the monthly blessing of the moon, wedding blessings, and blessings recited upon receiving good or bad news. There is even a blessing recited every 28 years for the sun that will be recited this year on April 8, 2009! There are blessings related to visual events that are recited upon seeing a king or a wise man and blessings for natural phenomena such as lightning, thunder and seasonal blossoming. There are blessings of petition, such as those found in the daily Amidah, and blessings for cleansing recited when immersing in a mikvah after menstruating or when washing one’s hands before eating bread. In short, Jews seem to have a blessing for everything.

Most blessings are of great antiquity and are attributed to Ezra the Scribe and to the Men of the Great Assembly (c. 355 BCE). Even those who attribute the blessings to Ezra maintain that the blessings pre-existed him and that he merely formalized and established them. In fact, already in Talmudic times, Rabbi Meir promoted the custom of reciting 100 blessings a day (Tractate Menachot 43a).

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, G-d instructs Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) to leave the place of his birth and to go to the land that G-d will show him–the land of Canaan. There G-d promises to make him a great nation, to bless him and to make his name great, so that he will be a blessing for all. In Genesis 12:3, G-d says to Abram, “Vah’ah’var’ah’chah m’var’cheh’chah, oo’m’kah’lell’chah ah’ohr,” And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse.

Many understand this statement to mean that those who treat the Jews properly will benefit profusely from G-d’s beneficence, and that those who mistreat the Jews will suffer greatly for their villainy. As we have frequently noted, every country that ever expelled the Jewish people went into an almost immediate economic tailspin, with the recent exception of Germany. After the war, Germany was entirely devastated. Had it not been for the Marshall Plan, Germany would probably still be in ruins.

The Malbim maintains that, because Abram took issue with the entire world by asserting his belief in a monotheistic creator, he was undoubtedly subject to much derision and abuse, all for the sake of Heaven. The Al-Mighty therefore assured Abraham that he will ultimately be blessed. The Al-mighty’s promise to Abraham has indeed been fulfilled, as we’ve seen over the centuries that many faiths and cultures regard Abraham as their spiritual father. Even those who do not descend from Abraham speak of him with great reverence. The promise that G-d gave Abraham has clearly been fulfilled.

A significant lesson that is derived from G-d’s promise to Abraham is the extreme importance of giving blessings to others. The Talmud in Megillah 15a teaches that a blessing, even from a hedyot, a common person (including non-Jews), must never be treated lightly. Blessings are invaluable. They must not only be treated with respect, they should be sought out, since the power of blessings is exceedingly potent.

According to tradition, the custom of greeting one’s neighbors in the name of G-d originated with Boaz when he, upon arriving from Bethlehem, greeted his harvesters with the words (Ruth 2:4), “Hashem ee’mah’chem,” May G-d be with you, to which they responded, “Y’vah’reh’ch’cha Hashem,” May G-d bless you.

Part of the ritual of “Kiddush Levanah,” the monthly blessing of the new moon, involves greeting three different people from among those present with the blessing, “Shalom Aleichem,” May peace be upon you. They in turn respond, “Aleichem Shalom,” upon you is peace. It appears that no Jew can enter a new month without expressing love for others and for humanity, but Shalom Aleichem is not limited only to the blessing of the new moon. It has become as common in Jewish life as saying “hello” in secular society.

Greeting others warmly is intended to establish a proper frame of mind for society. Therefore, the custom has spread to wish others “Gut Shabbos,” and “Gut voch,” Have a good Sabbath, Have a good week, and Have a good “Yom Tov” (holiday). It is befitting that blessings be said with genuine feeling and not merely as rote remarks, bereft of emotion and caring. It is also important to greet others when they set out of the house or go on a trip by wishing them “Tzaytchem L’Shalom,” Go in peace. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 183:6 affirms that when one sees another working, one should say “Titz’lach b’mah’ah’seh’cha,” be successful in your work.

The Mishnah in Avot 2:17 suggests that when someone we know suffers damage, loses money or an object of value, it is important to feel that person’s pain by empathizing with them. There is even a formula for wishing them well: “Ha’makom ye’ma’lay ches’rohn’chah,” May the Al-mighty replace your loss.

It is very much part of Jewish tradition to feel that in return for blessing others, the Al-mighty will bless us. There is nothing higher than the value of (Leviticus 19:18) “V’ah’havta l’ray’eh’chah ka’mo’chah,” loving your fellow human being as much as yourself.

Oddly, the importance of seeking blessings from other is learned from a least expected source–from Esau, the brother of Jacob. The Pelech Yoetz writes that Esau and his descendants have achieved great success in history, because when Esau realized that Jacob had received his father’s blessing, he cried out (Genesis 27:38): “Hav’rah’cha ah’chaht hee l’chah ah’vee, bar’chay’nee gam ah’nee ah’vee,” Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father. And Esau raised his voice and wept bitterly.

Blessings are not to be taken lightly. They ultimately have great impact on our lives and on human destiny.

May you be blessed.