August 11, 2009
Guilty As Charged - Rabbi Barry Gelman
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bestows good on the guilty, who has bestowed upon me much good.
The above is the text of the Birkhat HaGomel, a blessing traditionally recited by one who has survived a dangerous situation. The Talmud teaches that one who is released from captivity, recovers from a serious illness, crosses a wilderness or crosses an ocean is obligated to recite this blessing of thanksgiving. The Aruch Hashulchan and Mishna Berura conclude that survival of any dangerous situation requires the recitation of this blessing, not only the four mentioned in the Talmud.
The text of the blessing refers to God bestowing good upon the guilty. Reciting and hearing this blessing has always challenged me as I was bothered by the need for the public declaration of unworthiness. Of course, no one is perfect, but for our rabbis to paint with a broad brush everyone who says this blessing as guilty of some sin always seemed a bit harsh.
After learning the interpretation of this blessing offered by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook I am no longer bothered.
Rav Kook notes that this Bracha is meant as a reality check. All of the four situations mentioned by the Gemara take a person out of their routine and thrust them into unnatural and uncertain circumstances. Only upon returning to the routine does one recognize just how remarkable routine life is. It is that recognition that creates the need to thank God.
So Rav Kook teaches that the seafarer who is torn from dry land and confronted with the power of the sea comes to recognize the wonder of routine life, the one who crosses a wilderness learns to appreciate the beauty of living in a society, a person who recovers from illness has a new appreciation for simple health and a person released from jail who presumably was incarcerated because of a moral failure, experience the horrible conditions of and learns a new appreciation of law and order.
Now we can understand what we are “guilty” of. We are guilty of only appreciating the order and routine of life that God has arranged after we suffer a jarring experience. Life should be lived with a constant recognition of the good God bestows on us, but because we are so used to it, we forget.
This is a very important idea of the morethodox. We live a very normal and routine life. We, because of our unique hashkafa, do not spend the majority of our day in the rarified spirituality of the beit midrash. We live in communities that may not have a large orthodox population that may serve as a reminder of God’s presence and goodness. We are out and about the society and part of the routine workings of the world. It is that very routine way of life that Rav Kook warns us about.
I hope that I can live up to Rav Kook’s call.