Dvar Torah – Sukkot 2017, Different blessings, together
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 October 2017
What does it mean to be blessed?
The question arises because of our second Torah portion this morning, replacing the classical second scroll for Sukkot morning – the description from the book of Numbers of the sacrificial offerings made on this day in the Temple.
In its place, we will read a short passage from parashat Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, describing the blessings that will accompany obedience to God’s commandments.
I say describing, but what we find is far from a description. Rather, we have six, vague, general blessings.
They are intended to express the idea that every aspect of our lives will be blessed: wherever we are, whether in or out of home; across generations; across – this being the text of an ancient near-Eastern agricultural people – across our rearing of livestock and our harvesting.
But, what it doesn’t tell us is what it will mean to be blessed, no real sense of the nature of the blessedness we might experience. So, as was often the way, the rabbis, the creative, playful, rabbis, took the opportunity to explore the idea of blessedness for themselves.
When you came in this morning, hopefully you were given, or picked up, a sheet with a couple of texts – one from the Talmud, Masechet Bava Metzia, one from Midrash D’varim Rabbah, in which the rabbis explore two of the blessings of our portion: Blessed shall you be in the city, blessed shall you be in the field; blessed shall you be in your comings-in, blessed shall you be in your goings out.
Common to both texts is diversity of interpretation. The Rabbis had different understandings of these verses.
Rav was clearly a city boy. For him blessing means not being far from the amenities of the city, and in the city, especially being close to a synagogue, close to Jewish communal life. Blessing for him, too, was about the quality of his family relationships – his intimacy with his wife, and the qualities of his children.
Rabbi Yochanan’s blessings were different. The less said about his understanding of “Baruch atah ba-ir” the better. But Baruch atah b-sadeh to him meant something practical and economic – about diversity of investments.
Blessings for him, and for Rabbi Berechyah (in D’varim Rabbah) were also about exiting the world blameless – about moral, spiritual innocence. They reached for a broader concept, that blessing is in the sum of our lives being for the good.
For Rabbi Yitzchak, blessing could be found in the fulfilment of mitzvah; for Rabbi Yehudah, in the biblical example of drawing others close to God; for others blessing was in the practicalities of life – trade, merchandise, the wonderful loan word ‘prakmatiya’ in our midrash.
This difference in understanding reflects something important about us as people, and about our tradition.
We experience the world in different ways, we have different priorities, we have different understandings of what it means to be blessed. For some of us blessing is economic, or our occupations, for some our loved ones, for some our children; some of us find blessing in mitzvah, in community, some in the city, some in the field.
And our tradition, with its beautiful polyvocality recognises this. It recognises that we can no more make a declaration about the nature of blessedness than we can make a declaration of what someone should find fun, or moving, fulfilling or joyful. We can speak only for ourselves.
In fact, the biblical text itself hints at this idea – blessed shall you be in your comings-in, blessed shall you be in your goings out – with the plural hinting that each member of People Israel will experience blessing differently.
We must aspire to be a blessing in our lives, to act with decency, to be without sin (in the words of both of our texts). But beyond that, our own sense of blessedness is diverse. This is inevitable – and recognised by our texts. In another famous rabbinic analogy making the same point, some of us are palm, some willow, some myrtle, some etrog – together we make the whole.
Importantly, our texts do not express a hierarchy, in which one understanding of blessedness trumps another. Rather, each is valid, no understanding rejected as wrong.
And that is our task in our community and our Judaism too. To ensure that, as in our texts, our understandings of what it is to feel blessed can exist side-by-side. Our blessings too should sit side by side on the page, not infringing on one another.
True blessing is not to be found in our individual sense of reward. True blessing is when we work together to make all of our blessings a reality.