I’ve always enjoyed saying hello to the station master at Finchley Central. At least I think he’s the station master; he’s the gentleman who does the garden alongside the platform for the south-bound trains. I wouldn’t have known him, were it not for those months, now sadly over, when I used to go up to Manchester for the day to see my aunt and get the very first tube at 5.30am to catch the train from Euston. We’d exchange a word about this plant or that and I’d say that I hoped he’d win this year, because he’d come second so many times in the competition for the best tube station gardens in the city. The short encounter always felt like an early morning blessing.
Tomorrow we read in the Torah about the most famous blessing of all: ‘May God bless you and keep you; may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you…’ But what actually is a blessing?
There’s a huge mystical literature on the subject, but I just want to reflect on the saying in the Talmud that the ordinary everyday blessings of ordinary everyday people like us should not be taken lightly.
To give another example, one of the things I like about going to Tesco’s is the huge smile I generally get from the supervisor who stands near the front entrance. I think he knows me by now because of my habit of doing the shopping somewhere between half-past-ten and midnight on Wednesdays or Thursdays (I’m far from the only one in our community). That smile lifts the whole experience, makes it human, gives it warmth, when so often we pass each other in blank indifference, each plugged into his or her earphones, other people reduced to inconvenient objects to be avoided on the over-crowded pavement.
A blessing doesn’t actually need the words ‘Bless you!’ to have its effect. It’s the kindness in the way an ordinary interaction is conducted, the way one asks for a challah at the bakers and how it’s given, how one waves to a person one knows on the opposite side of the street. It restores the human image in us, which according to the Bible is also God’s image, the part of us which notices, cares and wants life to be gracious and rich.
A blessing is a pointer, guiding us more deeply into the world. It’s amazing how much one doesn’t see. When one sees a beautiful tree, one’s supposed to say, or maybe even just to think, ‘Baruch shecacha lo be’olamo, – Blessings be to God whose world is like this’. ‘This’ means beautiful and precious. A few more days and the wind will have blown the last of the petals from the crab-apple trees; another fortnight and the season of the apple blossom will have passed. How many such times does one have, that one can afford not to notice?
Sometimes the pointer guides us outwards into the world about us, but sometimes it directs us deeper within. That lady who gave that cheerful ‘good morning’, – do I greet people like that? That person who just did something so simple but so kind, – am I a human like that? Other peoples’ blessings guide us towards the person we could become.