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Blessings And ...


Rabbi Berel Wein

אלול תשע"א
This week’s parsha emphasizes the subject of blessings and also of less pleasant predictions. The problem with blessings and seemingly negative statements and occurrences is that they are not readily or easily identifiable as being positive or negative. Many times in life what looked like a blessing at the time turned out to be really a very negative event in the long run and what looked like an unfortunate negative statement or occurrence eventually became a source of salvation and blessing. We are all familiar with the story of the man who cursed his luck at arriving too late to take up his cabin on the Titanic. His bad luck, so to speak, was truly what saved his life and his family’s existence. Good times often lead to disastrous consequences later just as hardships and travail often produce most positive results and accomplishments in the fullness of time. We all cheered peace agreements that apparently were great and good but in actuality were only the precursor of later violence and wars. We reveled in obtaining free loan money only to have to pay the piper when the general economy as a result of our previous apparent good fortune collapsed and brought undue hardships. Since life is so unpredictable it is obvious that quick judgments as to what is truly a blessing, personally or nationally, should be held in abeyance. Not always what we are convinced is going to be good for us turns out to be actually beneficial or positive.

The Torah warns us not to be overly clever and sanguine about unfolding events. Human eyesight is very limited. For everything that occurs in life carries with it a certain ambiguity and uncertainty. Therefore the Torah insists that we be tamim - simple, whole, almost naïve - in our assessments of events. Faith in God is the only certainty that remains for humans to trust in. Even though there is strict separation of church and state in the United States, the dollar bill proclaims that "In God We Trust." Only the Lord truly knows what events will actually turn out to be blessings. Therefore the great Chasidic masters all proclaim that Jews should pray to the Lord and state that "what is good in Your eyes, so to speak, is what we wish to occur." My teachers in the yeshiva long ago taught us to be careful for what we pray for the Lord may actually hear our request and grant it and that does not always turn out to be of true benefit to us. The great sage, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chafetz Chaim) stated that there are people who can handle great wealth and thus it can be a great blessing to them and yet there are others who are unable to deal with being very wealthy (especially if it happens suddenly to them) and thus the blessing eventually turns out to be a curse for them and their families. I know from my own personal experience in the rabbinate people who when they earned a middle class salary were wonderful people and when they had fortune seemingly smile upon them and they suddenly became very wealthy they became insufferable to others and eventually even to themselves.

As the new year approaches we all pray for the blessings of a time of true peace, prosperity that we can handle and family harmony and contentment. But the wise person will leave one’s laundry list of requests from Heaven a short one. We should rather submit ourselves to Heaven’s wishes and that whatever is a good in the Lord’s eyes, so to speak, is good and acceptable for us as well. In a world of incessant and insatiable demands for more of everything that is material and thus transient it would be true to Jewish tradition for us to be more humble and sparing in our demands and requests. The truth is that that is very little that we actually need though there is much that we want. The ability to deal with this contradiction in our lives between need and want is the key to spirituality and to contentment in this world and our lives in it. This idea is reinforced throughout the Torah and rabbinic writings. Judaism does not preach poverty or its virtues. But it certainly does preach moderation in all matters for only in moderation can true blessing be found and achieved. We wish to be blessed but we also wish to have blessings in a degree and kind that we can absorb and exploit correctly. And that is what our prayer should be.
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