Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Who Blesses, Who Needs Blessing

Fortunately for you, I only know two Yom Kippur jokes, and I’m only going to share the second one.

Yom Kippur joke #2 goes like this: The worship service is proceeding beautifully, and everyone is being brought to the very edge of repentance. The synagogue is magnificent. Everyone is dressed in their Yom Kippur best, and the music has just elevated people from their seats time and time again.  Toward the grand climax of the service, the rabbi is so moved emotionally and spiritually by the prayers and the music that he starts banging his chest with both of his fists and saying, “Lord in Heaven, I am nothing!  I am less than nothing!  I am a worm!  I am worthless!”  The cantor, so moved by seeing the rabbi so dramatically repent also does the same thing; taking her tallit, she starts pounding herself on the chest – “Lord I am nothing!  I am worse than nothing! I am a mere worm in your presence!” at which point one of the people in the cheap seats in the far back of the sanctuary, so inspired by the rabbi and the cantor’s repentance, stands up and starts pounding himself on the chest and saying:  “Lord in Heaven I am nothing!  I am worthless!  I am worse than nothing!”, at which point the rabbi turns to the cantor and says: “So look who’s nothing?”

I tell you the second joke because here is one of the great psychoses we all carry around in our lives.  We all secretly think we are nothing.  We all have a suspicion, hidden or not, that everybody else has it really together, and we’re the only ones who are a mess just beneath the surface.  Everyone else is truly glamorous, completely in control, living a charmed life, and we are the only one faking it.  That attitude, that we are somehow so uniquely deficient that we have to hide it from each other, and perhaps even hide it from ourselves, masks the fear that if anyone knew how flawed we actually were, they would abandon us completely; then they would fire us; then we would be completely alone.  So we put enormous energy into hiding what we think are our shameful flaws and our imperfections, while we assume that everyone else is close to Facebook perfect.

One of my favorite Talmudic stories, found in Massekhet Brachot, the very first volume of the Talmud, one that explains the history and meaning of Jewish prayers.  This tale deals with something that happened on Yom Kippur day itself, while the Holy Temple still stood in Jerusalem in all of its glory.  On this sacred day all of the Jewish people gathered together in the Holy City. One of the central rituals of the day, described in the Machzor even now, details when the high priest purified himself, not once, not twice, but by bathing again and again, by putting on the ritual garments until in a state of absolute purity, he was finally permitted his annual entrance into the Holy of Holies, the empty chamber in which it was held that God’s presence dwelled.

That’s where our story begins.  Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha who was the high priest in his generation recounts the following story:

“Once I entered into the Holy of Holies in order to burn the incense there, and when I was there I saw [God].”  He sees God sitting on a high and lofty throne.   “Ishmael, my son, give me your blessing.”  You think you feel inadequate?  Imagine, on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest spot in the world, you walk into the Holy of Holies which no one is allowed to enter.  The high priest was so careful that they tied a rope around his ankles so that in case he died in there they could pull him out.  And he walks into this room and there is God sitting on a glorious throne, and God turns to him and says:  “First name basis, I need your blessing.”

Here’s the amazing thing.  The Priest does give God a blessing!  Let’s pause a moment and ask ourselves, if we were to bless God, with what would we bless God?  Here’s what Rabbi Ishmael said:  “May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome your anger; that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes; that You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake You go beyond the boundaries of strict justice” and God nodded in a sense and affirms that it was a good blessing.

And then, of course, because the Talmud can’t help making its point clear, we are told what the point of the story is – “therefore we learn that one should never treat the blessing of a common person as though it were trivial.”

What a brilliant message: everybody contains a blessing that someone needs to hear. But I also see a different message in that wise story.  It’s not just about teaching the high priest that everyone is a somebody.  The story affirms that even if you’re as great as God, even then its nice to be blessed. Everybody needs to be blessed.

We all need each other’s blessing.  We are all of us, to some degree, faking it during the year, putting on a good show being strong and smart and masterful and conquering, while inside we retain this quivering sense of unworthiness.  We harbor the suspicion that everyone will see through our charade sooner or later.

Everybody has a blessing to offer and everybody needs to be blessed.  What does it mean to give someone our blessing?  I want to offer us a couple of possibilities to think about during the Yamim Noraim and beyond.

One form of blessing is when we are able to reach down into our depths and find something that we are able to turn over to someone else to make them stronger and more whole.  Can we train ourselves to look at a person not for what we can get out of them, but what it is they might need from us at that very moment?  What might they need that only we could provide?

A second kind of blessing is to be able to reframe how we see the person in front of us.  I will confess a trick that I teach my rabbinical students.  I tell my students – current and former – that the only way to face a needy congregant who you are not in the mood to talk to at the moment is to ask yourself, “if this person were my child what would I see in them right now?”  I guarantee that stretching to see a person through parental eyes makes their virtues and loveable qualities that rise to the surface.  The next time you are dragged into a conversation with someone you don’t want to be in conversation with, stop yourself and think, “if I were that person’s parent, what would I notice about them right now?”  I promise you it will change your perception.  That ability to see another person’s best is another blessing to be given because we live in a world in which we often feel unheard and unseen.  To be able to see the person as affirming and positive is a precious, beautiful gift.

To bless someone is to be able to see them with such clarity that you are able to fill a brokenness that they cannot fill on their own.  To be able to heal a wound that they may not even know they have, a smile, a hug.  One of the things my son Jacob (who struggles with autism) most loves joining me on the bimah for the end of the Yom Kippur services, is that whenever he walks up on the bima, congregants smile at him.  Those smiles are themselves blessings.  And I tell Jacob that you don’t have to be autistic to need people to smile at you.  It turns out that muggles also like to be smiled at (muggle is a technical term for a non-autistic person).  We all need to be seen, and to feel welcome.  We all need to know that people are happy to see us, that they are enjoying our presence, that we are not offending them or doing something wrong.  Can we use the Yom Kippur season to practice smiling at each other as a way of blessing each other?

So, in that spirit, I would like to offer 5 short exercises for the Yom Kippur and Sukkot season:

  1. Take a moment to reach deep in your heart and offer a blessing to God. I don’t care whether you believe in God or not.   I invite you to reach deep within yourself, recognizing that it is a miracle to be alive.  It’s a miracle that a collection of chemicals can have consciousness; can experience light and music and song and joy and sorrow and pain.  It’s miraculous!  What do you want to say to the oneness that brought you to this moment?  Try putting that gratitude into words. Give God a blessing.
  2. We are, all of us, each of us, alive because of people who no longer walk this earth. Take a moment and mentally gather your deceased loved ones around you in an embracing circle. These people may no longer walk this earth with us but they pulse in our hearts with every beat e.  I Take a moment to give and receive blessing from them.
  3. We live in a world in which people travel far and wide, so those of us who have all of our loved ones in our geographic local are few and far between. Conjure up your loved ones who are not geographically close.  Imagine them all standing by your side. Now take them in your arms and feel their embrace, give them your blessing, and receive theirs.
  4. Now think of your loved ones who are close by. This you are allowed to do out loud if they are close enough – or you can just smile from the center of your heart.  Take a moment to offer and to receive blessings from the people you love still local.
  5. Finally, I want you to take a moment to dive deep inside yourself. Think of something in this past year that you’re really happy about yourself for. Sometime when you went above and beyond; some act of unknown kindness; something courageous that you tried whether you succeeded or failed; something lovable that you have been noticing of late.  Take a moment and bless yourself. You are, yourself, a source of blessing, and deserving of one.

There is no one alive who is unworthy of blessing.  There is no one alive incapable of giving blessing.  It is the vocation of every Jew to be a constant source of blessing, to ourselves, our loved ones, our people, Israel, humanity, the world.  I bless you that you should use the day of Yom Kippur, the festival of Sukkot, and then all the days that follow, to collect the blessings that people scatter in the streets, drop on their desks, leave in their cars, scatter in the supermarkets or in the synagogue, and when you find those sparkling lost blessings, make it your business to distribute them to people who could use them, while holding on to a sampling of those blessings for yourself, as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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