If you google birkat hagomel, you will find that it is a Jewish prayer of gratitude, a prayer said after recovering from a serious illness or surviving a dangerous journey.
Four individuals are required to render thanks: a person who had been sick and recuperated, a person who had been imprisoned and was released, people who alight [at their destination] after a journey at sea, ve-yordei ha-yam ke-sheh-alu [literally those who go down to sea and then arise] and travelers who reach a settlement.
These thanks must be rendered in the presence of ten people, of whom two are sages, as [implied by Psalms 107:32]: “They will exalt Him in the congregation of the people and they will praise Him in the seat of the elders.” How does one give thanks and what blessing should he recite? He should stand in the midst of the [abovementioned] company and say:
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovot she-g’malani kol tov. Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who bestows benefits upon the culpable, who has bestowed all goodness upon me. Ve-hashomim: Mi she-g’malcha kol tov, hu yi-g’malcha kol tov selah. Those who hear should respond: May He who granted you beneficence continue to bestow good upon you forever (here).
It is also customary for a woman to give thanks after childbirth in the synagogue. She recites it, not her husband, for it is she who has given birth. In fact, ideally, she should not only get an Aliyah, but she should read from the Torah and then recite the blessing (here).
The Torah reading for the last day of Passover is Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-21). For as long as I can remember, I have been the Torah reader for this portion in our kehillah and have what is called a chazaka (ownership, or a valid claim) to read it every Pesach (and also for parshat Beshalach). One can understand this song as one big birkat hagomel that the people of Israel read, thanking God for getting them safely through the Sea. They have gone down and then come up again. They have been saved. It is very fitting that I recite birkat hagomel this year during my reading of the Torah. I won’t keep you all in suspense, as you must be wondering why davka this year? What is different about this year? Mah Nishtanah?
On Monday, I went to swim at our local swimming pool, after a hiatus of about ten days. It was chamsin weather, so I dressed accordingly. I was very happy to be swimming. All of a sudden, the wind started up and the rain came pouring down. It’s an enclosed pool, so that didn’t bother me. The lifeguard closed all the doors to the pool and I continued swimming. I usually swim for a half hour (crawl and back, a lap is ten times two). I had the first lane to myself and was at the end of my third lap, swimming on my back, almost at the wall of the pool, when I heard a big bang. Disturbed, I jumped up angrily, prepared to yell, thinking someone had almost missed me by jumping into the pool (it had happened before). Instead, I saw that the wind had blown the door into my lane. It missed me by a handbreadth. The person in the lane next to me said that I have to go to the synagogue and bentch gomel. So did the lifeguard. Strangely enough, I was more annoyed at having my swimming interrupted and went into another lane to continue swimming. Meanwhile, someone fixed the door and I nervously went back into my original lane. I completed my ten laps. Since it was pouring rain, and I was dressed for the summer, I had to wait for the rain to subside a bit. The pool club lost electric power. I waited with the people from the gym and told them what happened. I reported what happened to the pool’s secretary, who also told me to bentch gomel. She said, how lucky I was, because if the flying door had hit me on the head, I would have drowned. I told her that I didn’t want to even think about that. When I got home, I told the story to friends and family on WhatsApp. A close friend called later and told me the same. She said, “you know, Naomi, if it had hit you, you probably would have drowned and died.” I said, I know that I am lucky and will bentch gomel.
Except for the fact, that I didn’t sleep too well last night, thinking about writing this up as a blog, and looking for a connection to Passover, I feel the same. I’m not physically shaking in the aftermath, as I did when I gave birth, or after I was in a car accident years ago. But it has made me think. I am a very cautious person. I don’t take unnecessary risks. When I drive, I stay in the right lane and only pass if necessary. I rarely venture from my house and when I do, I plan the route and use Waze. What I realize is that despite my care, my life is not in my own hands. There is a limit to what I can control. Had I been swimming just a bit faster; or if the wind had picked up a second later, I would have reached the wall in the pool and then I would not be writing this blog today. As I write this, it literally creeps me out to think about it. So, I guess, my writing up what happened, sharing this with my readers, and giving it some Jewish contest, is therapeutic. Tomorrow my chanting of Az Yashir, with its special melody will take on a special meaning. I will recite a personal and collective birkat ha-gomel as I identify with the Israelites whom God saved from drowning. here