Blessings For The New Year
People think that blessings happen to you. This is what I also always thought and believed. In fact, this is how I ordered my spiritual life. Blessings find you. They capture you at the unplanned, and unexpected, moments. For years I held on to this idea.
Leon Wieseltier, the writer and thinker, once wrote: “Serendipity is how the spirit is renewed.” He wrote those words years ago when bemoaning the closing of his beloved record store. He taught that we are losing the art of browsing. We no longer wander into a record store or a bookstore and discover something new and wonderful. I admit. It’s been years since I went to a bookstore–or even seen a record store–and found myself lost in the poetry section, sitting on the floor, trying to decide which of the many newly discovered poetry books I might purchase–or asking the record store employee which Blues CD he might recommend to add to my collection. Those serendipitous moments sustained my spirit. They renewed my soul.
It’s the casual meeting, the unplanned encounter that restores us. At least that is what I thought. That is how I believed it is best to approach a spiritual life. I gravitated toward the meeting that was unexpected. I gained more sustenance from the chance encounter. That casual discussion in the lobby of our synagogue or the random debate at the oneg renewed me; the new friend made when we were both on a delayed flight to Los Angeles. I marveled about that experience. An upended journey transformed into a blessing by this chance encounter.
But then in March, all this came crashing to a halt. The unexpected, the unplanned, the unchoreographed, came to frighten us. The serendipitous bumping into a stranger no longer electrifies our spirit; it terrifies the soul. We rush past the chance meeting so as to minimize contact and avoid the potential for contagion. We no longer linger. We no longer meander through occasions. Life moved online.
At first, I was grateful for the newfound efficiency. Thirty-minute meetings became fifteen phone calls. There is a task to accomplish so let’s jump on a call or on Zoom. But I soon found myself missing the moments that used to precede the task, the minutes devoted to catching up and renewing friendships. Services ended when I clicked end meeting for all rather than when we nonchalantly left the synagogue and walked together to our cars. I found myself missing the oneg–not the stale cookies or the out of season fruit, although certainly Lisa’s baking–but the people and the sharing of each other’s lives. I longed even for the unplanned and heated debates about gun control or the arguments about something the president did or did not do.
It’s funny that the after service get-together is called an oneg. Oneg means joy. It can’t so much be about those cookies as much as it must be about the people. Joy is found in the conversations, in the intimacies we discover about each other, the unforeseen insights others offer about my sermon or the “By the way, I think my son is going to get engaged soon.” Or even, “My mother has been in the hospital. Please pray for her.” Those moments are now but distant memories.
The serendipity vanished. Our spirits seemed to wither. Or so I thought. I was forced to discover a new philosophy. Blessings don’t happen. You must fashion them. Blessings do not appear like revelations from heaven. This was all wrong or at the very least, this has to be all wrong for now. Instead, you make them. You fashion blessings. We have to get out there and make blessings for ourselves. We cannot wait. We dare not wait for the unexpected to strike us with renewal.
I turn to our tradition. Judaism offers three insights about blessings. #1. They are all around us. #2. They can be found every day, in the most ordinary of circumstance. And #3. We have to make them.
Blessings mean setting your alarm for an early hour so you can catch the sunrise. And then breathing it in when the world begins to fill with light, when the horizon is colored with orange and red–and not worrying about the Instagram shot. It might mean driving a few extra miles to a different park. Long Island has countless beaches to explore. Those on the North Shore are rocky. Others on the South are sandy. I love the water and find nourishment swimming in the Sound, most especially beyond the lane lines. Or it could mean going for a drive or even a bike ride or a run. Go play golf if you like. I still don’t get that sport, but if you love it, get out there and do it. Start gardening or planting some house plants. Just get out there and relish in the outdoors and in nature. I admit the summer makes it easier to find blessings. It is easier to get out into nature.
So, cuddle with your kids–if they will allow it. Call or FaceTime with family and friends. Perfect your cooking skills. Work on baking a complicated cake–or adding different nuances to it week after week. If you have been waiting to take up yoga, then find an online class and do it. Start reading that pile of books accumulating on your shelves or the new titles added in your Kindle. Take up writing poetry or painting. Start something new. Or take up something old. The list is endless.
Or, how about this? Take up singing or a musical instrument. Singing and music will help to lift your spirit whether you sing as well as our cantor or as poorly as me. As the Hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav advised: Just sing, clap and dance. Not because you’re a good singer but because your spirit depends on it.
Slow down and take notice of the world around you. Watch the news less and look at the world all about you. Examine a flower. Take note of the birds in your backyard. Watch a bee fly from one colorful flower to another. Wrap your arms around your dog or purr with your cat–again don’t worry about the posts. The world is teeming with spiritual renewal. Don’t wait for it to strike you. Get out there and find it.
On Rosh Hashanah morning, we read the Torah portion that details the birth of Isaac, but I find the little-discussed story about Hagar and Ishmael more insightful. It too is contained in the Rosh Hashanah reading. We tend to focus on our Isaac and not their Ishmael, but he is in our Torah too. He and Hagar’s insights are there for us to learn from.
After Isaac is born to Sarah and Abraham, Hagar along with her and Abraham’s son Ishmael are exiled. Alone in the wilderness, and now without water, she cries out to God and God responds to her just as God responded to Sarah. A well miraculously appears and the two are saved. The Torah makes plain how this miracle occurred. “Vayifkach Elohoim et-einehah–And God opened her eyes.”
The miracle was not as we originally believed. It was not “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” Instead, it was as simple as seeing. God opened her eyes. And this is something that is within our reach. The well was there all the time. Her grief, and her tears, shrouded her vision, and prevented her from seeing the miracle by her side. Does our despair likewise blind us to the miracles that surround us? Let us open our eyes.
This is why the tradition instructs us to recite blessings. When? When we eat some bread, we say the motzi. When we eat an apple, especially tonight’s dipped in honey, we say “Thank You God for the fruit of the tree.” When you see the ocean, say a blessing. When you see the beauty in nature say a blessing. The list is seemingly endless. For every different kind of food. For flowers, for spices, for trees. For mountains, for oceans, even for rainbows, we have a blessing.
Why? Because if you have to stop to think about the fact that this apple that I am about to eat grew on a tree, then you become more aware of God’s hand and you slow down and pause and say in effect, “Thank you.” You fill your heart and soul with gratitude. And that filling up of the soul comes from your mouth. You say it. You create the blessing. Or perhaps better said, you acknowledge the blessing that is right before you. That seemingly ordinary thing becomes something greater. The well is right here; and it is right now.
On these Jewish holidays, rabbis and cantors are in their synagogue’s sanctuaries, and congregants are in their homes. At first, I thought I would record this talk at the beach which as you know is one of my all-time favorite places and a place that restores my spirit. But that is a destination. That is not where I have spent the past six months. And so, I am standing at my home, on my deck. I am in the place where, like you, I have spent the vast majority of my time. I wanted to remind you, most especially on this Rosh Hashanah, not about where we cannot go and what we cannot do (and who we cannot see in person), but where we can go and what we can do. I wanted to be crystal clear where we can find blessings for ourselves and grab them for ourselves. The home is the place where we have to make our blessings.
And now, at my home, during this season, I can see the Black Eyed Susans which are in full bloom. To be honest, Black Eyed Susans are glorified weeds. Once you plant them, they will take over just about any bed. But aren’t they beautiful? So it is with blessings. You have to go out there, open your eyes, and grab them. They are not going to find you. You have to find them.
The poet Mary Oliver writes: “As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was/the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.” The world is indeed singing with blessings. And it is what provides us with life. Run for it.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, oseh maaseh b’reshit. Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, maker of the wonders of creation.
And the spirit is renewed. There is no need to wait for serendipity when it is as simple as opening our eyes. And let us say, Amen.
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