Dod Werner, Uncle Werner, as everyone called him, has not been alive for many years now. I believe he made it to 102. Whenever I was in Jerusalem, I would visit him and ask him to bless me. I don’t entirely know why, since he wasn’t actually my uncle, but that of a friend and colleague. It was something about him, his wisdom, his presence.
Dod Werner wasn’t a cohen, a priest, to whom as we read tomorrow, the Torah entrusts the privilege of bestowing the blessing beloved of people of all faiths:
May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and give you grace.
May God’s face be turned toward you and grant you peace.
But there’s something greater than saying a blessing. It’s what God tells Abraham: ‘heyeh berachah, be a blessing.’ A much-quoted Midrash has God say to him: ‘until now the blessings were in my hands, henceforth they are in yours.’ Since Abraham is ‘the father of many nations’ this instruction is the prerogative of all humanity. More than that: it’s a commandment; it’s what we are here for, it’s life’s purpose.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century definitive code of Jewish law, we should say at least one hundred blessings every day: ‘Bless you for opening the eyes of the blind, for clothing the naked, for enabling people to walk…’ It’s hard to avoid reciting them by rote.
But they remain a bulwark against taking life for granted. And suddenly, when one’s back goes and one can hardly walk, one realises that nothing should be taken as given. The Talmud recounts how two rabbis pay their respects to a blind scholar in a village through which they happen to be passing. Moved by their kindness, the man thanks them, saying: ‘May the One who sees but cannot be seen bless you who visited one who can be seen but cannot see.’ There’s grace and gratitude in those words.
But blessing is more than words, more even, writes Rachel Remen in her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings, than ‘something that one person gives another.’ When we bless, we ‘touch the unborn goodness’ in each other: ‘A blessing is a moment of meeting…in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth.’
Last Tuesday night, unable to sleep, I read Adam Kirsch’s ‘Can humans ever understand how animals think?’ Then I dreamt of how important it is to bless and feel blessed not just by humans, but by animals too. When the time comes, I’d like to spend some of my old age in their company, humbled, simplified, blessed by their presence.
Looking deeper at God’s instruction to Abraham, heyeh berachah, I realise that heyeh is composed of three of the letters in God’s name, Yod Heh Vav Heh, letters which also form havayah, the Hebrew word for ‘being’. When we bless truly, God is present, the being at the heart of all being. In blessing, life touches life in a moment of togetherness deeper than all the accidents, differences and injuries of this world.
The mystics relate berachah, blessing, with berechah, pool, the hidden reservoir from which life flows down through all existence. We cannot bless while we harbour arrogance or anger. Life won’t flow through us then.
Blessing is a moment of trust and entrusting, of fidelity and companionship with life. Words of blessing are important; we need to tell people how much we cherish and care for them. But blessing at its deepest has no words. It is known in the heart: a silent shared acknowledgement of the wonder and oneness of life.