Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Blessing Every Moment - Berakhot 60

Most liberal Jews of every denomination divide their lives into “Jewish” or “sacred” time and “ordinary time” – ceremonial meals are blessed, but not every glass of water; Shabbat is remembered, but synagogue services are not attended every week. For the Judaism envisioned by the Talmud, however, there was no “time off” – every moment, every activity could have its particular blessing. Today’s page includes blessings for: entering, traveling through, and leaving a large city (3 different blessings); entering and leaving a bathhouse; entering medical treatment; even separate blessings for entering and leaving the bathroom – to paraphrase, “thank you for making human holes work correctly.” There are separate blessings enumerated here for going to sleep, and waking up, hearing the rooster, opening eyes, stretching, dressing, stepping on the ground, beginning to walk, putting on outer clothing, and washing hands and face, all in addition to more conventionally-religious activities like wearing tsitsit [a fringed garment] or putting on tefillin [prayer boxes] which are Biblically commanded. It would seem that there is a blessing for every moment!

Today’s page even explores the Mishnah statement that one should bless God for evil as well as good. Can God do evil? No, says the Talmud’s rabbis – even that which we temporarily believe to be evil turns out for the best out of divine providence. A flood, in the long run, makes the land more fertile; finding a valuable item, even if it will later draw the king’s envy, is good for the moment. And an anecdote with Rabbi Akiva turns disaster into vengeance: an inhospitable town forces him and his rooster and donkey to stay outdoors, where his lamp blows out and his animals are eaten. That night the town is despoiled, for Akiva’s animals did not warn them. Is it true that “all the Merciful One does is for good,” as Akiva says? After all, his animals are still eaten, even if he is personally avenged. In this case, an eye for an eye has made both sides blind.

It is important to make the best of bad situations, striving to learn positive lessons from human challenges. But one need not be grateful to the challenge to learn from it. I can learn the lesson “drive slower” from a car accident, but I could have learned the same lesson without injury from a speeding ticket. And making each moment of life precious (i.e. “actively being”) is important, but not to the point of paralysis. We should never forget that life is about BOTH “being” and “doing” – if we are too busy “doing” to appreciate “being,” we have lost our balance; but if we do too much “being” and not enough “doing”, we are also lost. There are times for reflecting on life, and also times for doing.

Rabbi Adam Chalom