How Can I Bless, After a Stroke?

question shutterstock_213583006

A regular reader asked: “Rabbi, I want to say a blessing before eating, but since my stroke it is hard for me to remember the words of all the blessings. Is there a “one size fits all” blessing which I could say?

First of all, good for you! Saying blessings before eating is a wonderful practice.

Because language provides many different challenges to people, here are several suggestions. Choose whichever you think might be helpful in your case.

  • You can say blessings in English if that would be easier for you. That is a perfectly valid option and not “cheating.”
  • For blessings over food, consider printing them out and putting the paper or card near where you eat. This page from MyJewishLearning.com would work nicely for that purpose.
  • The CCAR Press offers a nice app you can have as close as your smartphone or tablet: An App for Blessings
  • There is no official “one size fits all” food blessing, but you could try using these two if you like:
    • For a meal that includes any wheat product, the blessing hamotzi (follow link to the text) covers the entire meal, except for wine.
    • For a snack or meal that does not include bread, you could use the shehakol blessing (again, linked.) Some readers may point out that that isn’t quite traditional, but the literal words of the blessing seem to me to cover the subject sufficiently – definitely better than no blessing at all.
  • If you are sitting and looking at the food and can’t recall what to say, and your cue sheet isn’t nearby, here’s what you can do. Say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who provides [name the food] for me.”
  • If there are other Jews present who know the blessing, invite them to bless, then say “Amen.”

Let’s take this one step farther, in case someone with aphasia searches this question and reads this. Let’s say speech is very difficult, or recalling words is difficult. You are ready to eat, and the blessing just isn’t there, or isn’t going to come out of your mouth. In such a case, I suggest you look at the food. Let the intention of the blessing enter your heart: appreciate God’s creation and this gift to you, God’s creature. Now eat. God knows what you just said with your heart.

Most of all, remember that this is not a contest. There’s a very famous story that applies here. I’m going to quote Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, since she tells it so well:

The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn’t know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.” The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy’s words and stopped all the prayers. “Because of the simple words of this boy,” he said, “all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven.”

May our blessings, however fragmentary we feel them to be, speak our truths to the Holy One of Blessing. May the act of blessing itself bless us and our communities, near and far.

Pay Attention, Israel!

sign language

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately excluded them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.” It is a gesture that begins with a closed fist at the forehead, palm toward the face. Then the index finger pops up, thus:

(I am saying “understand” here because that is what the sign means in standard ASL.)

It can be very disturbing when a prayer is translated differently, or when we sing it to a new tune. I originally found this translation of the Shema to be very troubling, because I was accustomed to “Hear.” I still think that had it been my decision, I’d have gone with “Pay attention!” However, the unfamiliar translation made me start thinking: what best communicates the spirit of the Shema?

Now, when I say the Shema, I listen to it in Hebrew, in English, and yes, in ASL. Every new translation possibility has enriched my understanding of the raw Hebrew. Every possibility of meaning collapses back into

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

What does “Shema” mean to you?

What are Kinot and Piyyutim?

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543

I’m spending the remainder of Tisha B’Av studying Rav Yosef Soloveitchik‘s commentary on the kinot associated with the day.

What is a kina? To explain that, I must first explain piyyutim. Piyyutim are Hebrew liturgical poems. Some are as old as the 3rd century CE, and many are from the Middle Ages. They are elaborations on the themes and emotions associated with the prayer service, especially the services on special days. One is most likely to encounter a piyyut during the High Holy Days, because there are many famous piyyutim associated with those services, and at those very long formal services we often read a few of them.

To get the full effect of a piyyut, it is best to hear it read in Hebrew, because the music of the language does not come through in translation. Many piyyutim are acrostics (the first letter in each line spell a word.) They take the theme of a service or prayer and then bring in images and word-play from midrashim associated with the words in the prayer. That’s why studying them with a commentary can be helpful: otherwise the ordinary person will miss a lot.

Kinot (singular kina) are a particular kind of piyyutim.  They are liturgical poems of lament, formal expressions of grief. The great majority of them are associated with Tisha B’Av.

Here is the beginning of a famous old kina attributed to Elazar ben Killir, who lived in the 6th century CE (translation mine):

On this night my children cry and keen,
For tonight my holy Temple is destroyed, and my palaces burned.
And all the house of Israel tells my agony,
And cries for the fire kindled by the Holy One.

On this night my children cry and keen.

I find that the poets of kinot can help to bring a particular day in the Jewish year to life for me. Just from this one verse, it immediately projects me into the reality of a Jerusalemite in 586 BCE or 70 CE: I am sitting in the ruins of the city, listening to my children sob. They’re hungry. We’re in shock. The unthinkable has happened: God has turned on us.

The kina goes on to elaborate the trials of homelessness, and it accepts that in fact, we brought these evils upon ourselves. The forces of Babylon and Rome were merely agents of the Eternal, taking away the blessings we foolishly took for granted: home, security, peace.

If you would like to hear some kinot chanted, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music has a very nice collection of them for sale online, and it makes samples available for free listening.

Reading the kinot, I am struck by the fact that many of the sufferings we remember on Tisha B’Av are felt by far too many people in our own day: homelessness, hunger, and fear. May we rise from today’s fast renewed in spirit to relieve the sufferings of others!

A Blessing for the Images from Pluto

http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?gallery_id=2&image_id=222

Today the NASA spaceship New Horizons will fly past Pluto and snap the closest images ever taken of that heavenly body. I thought some of you might like to learn the appropriate blessing for seeing natural wonders.

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’Olam, she’ka’kha lo b’olamo.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has such creations in Your world.

(The image featured with this article is in the public domain. It was taken by the New Horizons ship on its approach.)

The Blessing for Study

Class with Rabbi Adar

A lovely and traditional way to begin a study session is the blessing for the study of Torah:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך
הָעולָם

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו
.וְצִוָּנוּ
לַעֲסק  בְּדִבְרֵי-תורָה

Ba-ruch a-tah A-doh-nai

Eh-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-O-lam

Ah-sher kid-e-shah-nu b’mitz-voh-tav

Vi-tsi-va-nu la’a-sok b’div-ray To-rah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One,

Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space:

Who sanctifies us with commandments

And commands us to engage in the words of Torah.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. Some of you may know slightly different English words. That’s all right. Many of the Hebrew words in the blessing have multiple choices for English translation. I used the ones that I like; please feel free to do the same for yourself!

“Torah” in this case refers to all sacred texts, whether they are from Tanach or rabbinic texts. It might apply to a modern text that we are reading with the intention of Torah study: for instance, a modern commentary or even a work of fiction or poetry.

I am always a little amused by the word “la’a-sok.”  The first time I heard it, it sounded like the English word “soak” and I pictured the study group, sitting in a hot tub, soaking in the words of Torah. The more Torah I study, the more apt that image seems: we marinate in the words of Torah.

“[God] sanctifies us with commandments” – what do those words mean to you? How can a person be made holy by a commandment?  How do they apply, in the case of this particular blessing?

The Door to Amazement: Why We Bless

NewMonarchWeb

…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….

Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.

While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.”  That question leads us to the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?

And what about those for whom the idea of God is more abstract, who find it rather odd to talk to an Idea? Why bother with blessings?

My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own.  When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.

Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. That pause may only be a fraction of a second, it may even become a reflex, but it is a moment of sacred intention breaking in upon the mundane. This week, as I hurry about my work, those little pauses remind me that every mitzvah gives me an opportunity to bring the sacred into the world, even when I have to do them rapidly, even when I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even a moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that, too!)

It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about our days!

The Dance of Jewish Prayer

Are you intimidated or confused by the various motions Jews make during prayer?  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door, some people fiddle with their prayer shawls.  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

Prayer in Jewish tradition is a whole-body experience. It engages all the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and yes, even the kinesthetic sense. One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

First of all, don’t panic. As long as you are reasonably respectful, no one is going to humiliate you or toss you out on your ear. Many of these gestures are individual devotional practices, and only a few of them are “required.”

A few general principles:

1.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

2.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

3.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

4.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, it is acceptable, after the service, to ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask anyone, or ask a service leader. It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else. Also, don’t get so carried away with your gestures that you crash into others around you.

Is there any gesture or movement in services that you have found particularly meaningful or particularly troublesome? I look forward to your comments!