By: Elan Babchuck
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Often attributed to Plato, this quotation seems, rather, to have emerged from the mouth of Ian Maclaren, a Scottish author and theologian. Whether it is 2,500 years old or only 100 is irrelevant; it is timeless. We are all fighting hard battles, facing daunting challenges, and traversing this vast wilderness of human existence.
In Jewish tradition, we mark the occasions of surviving these “battles” by saying Birkat HaGomel, translated as: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who bestows kindness on the culpable, and Who has granted me all kindness.” Why the “culpable,” you might wonder? To stress that God’s kindness extends even to those who are ostensibly undeserving of it.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we read of the myriad ways that Ancient Israelites would give offerings (sacrifices) to God, one of which is an offering of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7:12). A talmudic discussion on these offerings reads as follows:
“Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: ‘Four people must give thanks: (1) travelers by
sea, (2) travelers through wilderness, (3) one who was sick and recovered, and (4) one
who was incarcerated in prison and came out,’” (Talmud Berachot 54b).
While these four categories are quite specific, Maimonides expands the categories to include anyone who traveled on any type of journey, not just through wilderness or by sea (Torat Adam). Despite the expanded view, though, both Rashi and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (in Mishnah Berurah) conclude that the recitation of this blessing of thanksgiving can only be recited upon the safe conclusion of the journey. And therein lies my discomfort.
Our journey through the wilderness of the human condition is an eternal one. From cradle to grave, we are faced with decision after decision, forever lacking the prophetic foresight to predict what the future may hold. Just as the Israelites could only see as far as the next sand dune in the Sinai Desert, so, too, is our vision limited to what’s in sight in this very moment.
To be sure, there are finite journeys, curable illnesses, and short-term imprisonments. And when we find ourselves on the other end of them, we should make our way to the nearest Jewish community and “bentsh Gomel” (say Birkat HaGomel). But as we have learned so painfully and mysteriously this past week, some flights take off and never touch down safely. Some of us battle illnesses for which there is no cure and wake up day in and day out to fight the “hard battle,” as Maclaren so eloquently put it. Not only do some journeys lack a happy ending, but also so many of them lack an ending at all.
What I’m saying is that Birkat HaGomel is only one of countless vehicles for us to pause, reflect on the progress we’ve made, and express gratitude for our very existence. Whether it’s a bedtime recitation of Hashkiveinu, a morning prayer like Modeh Ani, or simply a deep breath in the midst of a troubling moment, my hope is that we all have “Gomel” moments and that we can share them with others for strength and support along the way.
For those of us in the midst of such a journey, regardless of where it began and where it may end, I offer the traditional communal response to Birkat HaGomel, recited in unison by all community members present:
מי שגמלך כל–טוב הוא יגמלך כל–טוב, סלה.
.May God who has been gracious to you continue to favor you with all that is good