September 6, 2001
Counting Our Blessings
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
Jewish legal tradition teaches that we should recite 100 blessings every day. This presents an opportunity and a challenge. How might I fill up my quota today? The numbers start adding up if I pray in the morning, afternoon and evening. I can recite benedictions before eating anything, and then again, after finishing food. Then, depending on the day (Shabbat, for example) or the season (let's say Chanukah, or Passover) I might wedge in a few extra blessings. But even with this lineup, it's still tough to reach my 100. How can I get there?
And even more central is the question of motivation. Why should we recite so many blessings? And we have to ask an even more basic question: What is a blessing, really?
The traditional Jewish blessing starts with "Baruch Ata" ("Blessed are You"). In every single blessing we utter, we are talking to a "You." It's a way of entering into a conversation. The topics vary: Sometimes it's gratitude ("blessed are You, God ... bringer of food from the earth"); other times acknowledgement ("blessed are You, God ... creator of light and creator of darkness"); and in still other instances, a request ("blessed are You, God ... healer of all flesh and maker of wonders.") Regardless of the topic though, a bracha is a way of making a connection with God.
In this week's Torah portion, "Ki Tavo," the Israelite people are also presented with the challenge of blessings. As they stand upon the slopes of two opposing mountainsides, the people listen to Moses. He invites them, before they enter into the Land of Israel, to contemplate the ways they might bring about blessings -- and avoid curses. At this moment, the people stand literally at a crossroads -- between past and future, wandering and settlement, blessing and curse.
And so do we. We are now in the month of Elul. This month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrives with an assignment: self-evaluation. Jewish tradition instructs us, throughout Elul, to take a cheshbon ha'nefesh -- an accounting of the soul. To figure out who we are. What we've been. How we measure up to our hopes, our intentions, our facades.
The goal of Elul is twofold. Certainly, we should take a walk on the dark side. Acknowledge the sins; the wasted hours; the destructive behaviors; look honestly at what we really are and face up to our disappointments and failures with truth.
But there's another goal of the soul-accounting: We're also meant to embrace the light. Just as introspection opens our eyes to our daily problems, it must also reveal our blessings -- the ones we enjoy every single day. Elul should be a time of -- literally -- counting our blessings.
The Hebrew word "Elul" is sometimes read instead as an acronym for a phrase from Song of Songs: "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li" -- I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine." Elul's subtext is about reciprocal love. It's about figuring out whom we love so much that we can enter that discussion 100 times a day; and equally, who loves us enough to send the hundreds -- and thousands -- of blessings that enrich all of our days.