Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 30 May 2020 / 7 Sivan 5780

The Morning Blessings: Blessing Two The Thrill of Being Jewish

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me a non-Jew.”

The next three blessings are unique. With the exception of the Morning Blessings, there is no other time when we recite what can only be described as negative blessings. In Judaism, a blessing is recited over what we have, not over what we do not have. For example, a person who is about to eat an apple does not thank G-d for not having given him a potato. And yet we now have three blessings, one after the other, that all begin with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for not having made me…” More than that, two of the blessings seem to be phrased in a derogatory fashion. “Blessed are You… for not having made me a non-Jew,” and “Blessed are You… for not having made me a woman.” How are we to understand why the Sages deemed it correct to compose the blessings in the negative? And why did the Sages feel that it was appropriate to speak in such a language about non-Jews and women?

Many, many years ago I posed these questions to Rabbi Uziel Milevsky. Rabbi Milevsky was a senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and was one of the most erudite, insightful and humble people that I have merited knowing. He began by explaining that the most sublime activities in this world are doing the Will of G-d. And, specifically, keeping G-d’s commandments and learning His Torah. G-d granted the obligation and the responsibility to do so to the Jewish People. That is the reason why the Jews are called the Chosen Nation. The ability to live a life that reflects the teachings of the Torah is truly an indescribable gift. But, it is not always such an easy thing to do. The daily obligations of a Jew are myriad and complex. The Code of Jewish Law is a primer that stretches from pre-birth to post-death. There is not supposed to be even a moment in our day that does not reflect the depth of our relationship with G-d. Rabbi Milevsky emphasized that it is the potential for such infinite profundity that can make our constant striving to connect to the Divine either inestimably exhilarating or just as equally discouraging. The numerous commandments are tools that have been given to us to help us try to overcome the seductive attractions of this physical world. And, when we are successful, we are connecting ourselves to G-d in the most absolute way possible. But, for someone who finds that immeasurably difficult to do, the commandments can also be regarded as hurdles and barriers to living “the good life” in this world. It is hard to remain focused all the time on what G-d wants. And it is definitely hard to ignore the many corporeal delights that the Torah forbids us to enjoy.

How does this connect to the blessing of thanking G-d for not having made us a non-Jew? In spiritual terms, perhaps the most basic definition of who I am is that I am a Jew. I belong to G-d. And my task in this world is to live my life accordingly. Therefore, when I recite the Morning Blessings, which are — in part — a description of who I am, one of my first obligations is to thank G-d for having given me the most wonderful gift of all: To proclaim that I am a Jew.

However, just because G-d made me a Jew doesn't mean I can behave however I want. Being Jewish carries with it an enormous responsibility to adhere to the ways of the Torah. If I were to declare that I am Jewish by saying, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, for having made me a Jew,” it would mean that I would be testifying to the fact that I live my life as a Jew without deviating from any of my responsibilities. The problem is, I do not always live exactly as G-d wants me to. I am not always so careful about the things that I do or the things that I say.

When I make a blessing, I am bearing witness that what I am saying is absolutely true. By proudly making a blessing proclaiming that I am Jew, it would be as if I were telling G-d, “Look at me! Look how wonderful I am!” And, perhaps, that is exactly what G-d would do. It is conceivable that my blessing would be the direct cause of an extremely exacting Divine “investigation” into the way that I live my life. In effect, G-d would do exactly as I asked — plus more. He would not just look at me. He would scrutinize all of my actions as well, to see if they really match up to my overconfident declaration that I am a Jew.

In the spiritual realms, being Jewish is not just being born Jewish. Being Jewish is living Jewish.

And that leaves us with a most challenging dilemma. On the one hand, my being Jewish is possibly the most fundamental definition of myself, a definition that cannot be ignored. My being Jewish absolutely requires recognition within the Morning Blessings, to proclaim with joy and unbridled passion that I am a Jew. To acknowledge the One Who made me Jewish. And to recognize what an enormous privilege it is. I am not looking down on anyone else. Perish the thought. Rather, I am “counting my blessings” and offering up thanks. But, on the other hand, to do so directly might be the cause of an unwanted Divine accounting. Therefore, the Sages, in their infinite wisdom, composed a blessing that is an indisputable fact: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d,

King of the universe, for not having made me a non-Jew.”

Obviously, the only conceivable meaning of the blessing is that I am a Jew. But the Sages understood that when it is said in the negative form it becomes a statement of fact, rather than a brash, defiant announcement that could spark an unwelcome Divine reaction.

Finally, let me conclude with a very important point made by Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, who was known as the Turei Zahav (or the Taz for short) after his seminal work on the Code of Jewish Law and one of the most eminent authorities in sixteenth century Poland. He writes that this blessing should not be taken to mean that non-Jews are considered to be of a lower status than Jews. This would be a serious and unfortunate mistake. Every category of being has a powerful purpose in this world, and each one is an absolutely necessary creation. I bless G-d for not creating me as one of the other necessary categories, but, rather, as a Jew — because of the unique role the Jew has in serving the Creator.

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