G-d spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them:
May G-d bless you and watch over you.
May G-d cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you.
May G-d raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace. (6:22-26)
The verses above comprise the blessing the Kohanim give the congregation every Yom Tov (holiday) during the Mussaf service. These blessings have been said for thousands of years and were said when the Temple stood. Since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, large masses have gone to the Western Wall on Passover and Sukkot to join tens of thousands of others who are there to receive the priestly blessing mentioned in the verses above.
On the simplest level, the first part of the blessing has two parts, that G-d (1) bless and (2) watch over us. However, when we take a deeper look, we will understand that even though we receive a blessing, it might not have value to us.
A man once came to Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezheritch (died 1772; a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder the Chassidic movement) with a question: “The Talmud (Brachos 54a) tells us that one is to ‘bless G-d for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good.’ How is this humanly possible? Had our sages said that one must accept without complaint or bitterness whatever is ordained from Heaven – this I can understand. I can even accept that, ultimately, everything is for the good, and that we are to bless and thank G-d also for the seemingly negative developments in our lives. But how can a human being possibly react to what he experiences as bad in exactly the same way he responds to the perceptibly good? How can a person be as grateful for his troubles as he is for his joys?”
Rabbi Dov Ber replied: “Go see my disciple, Reb Zusha of Anipoli. Only he can help you in this matter.”
Reb Zusha invited him in and to make himself at home. The visitor decided to observe Reb Zusha’s conduct before posing his question and it didn’t take long to conclude that his host truly exemplified the talmudic dictum which so puzzled him. He couldn’t think of anyone who suffered more hardship in his life than did Reb Zusha. A frightful pauper, there was never enough to eat in Reb Zusha’s home, and his family was beset with all sorts of afflictions and illnesses. Yet the man was forever good-humored and cheerful, and constantly expressing his gratitude to the Almighty for all His kindness.
“What was is his secret,” he thought; how does he do it?” The visitor finally decided to pose his question to Reb Zusha: “I wish to ask you something. In fact, this is the purpose of my visit to you – our Rebbe advised me that you can provide me with the answer.”
“What is your question?” asked Reb Zusha.
The visitor repeated what he had asked of Rabbi Dov Ber. “You raise a good question,” said Reb Zusha, “but why did the Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering…”
One has to deal with life on life’s terms, not on terms set by me. Reb Zusha is an extreme example but the message is that when one appreciates and focuses on what (s)he has rather than what (s)he is lacking, (s)he is taking a requisite step in being happy.
In Hebrew the word Bracha (blessing) shares a common root with breicha, which means “wellspring.” This alludes to the fact that a bracha (blessing) is really like an overflowing wellspring of goodness that flows down from the heavens. Sometimes it’s in the form of a wife or husband, a good job, friend, place to live, health or some other blessing you possess. Yet, people, many people, are not happy with these things. They complain they are not enough or that the people in their lives don’t understand them. Some complain that although their job or house is nice, it’s not nice enough. Those people are being showered with blessing, their lives are overflowing with health, companionship, and comfort but they don’t perceive it that way.
When we receive the priestly blessings mentioned above, the first thing we are meant to realize is that we do indeed have many blessings in our lives. One should ask him/her, “do I regard my past and present as a gift from G-d (or do I think I was ripped off)? If one can’t find blessing in his or her life, how can G-d grant you more blessings? I know many unhappy people with either an ivy league education, great job, wonderful spouse and children, but are unhappy and feel they have been short changed. I know unhappy people with tens and some with even hundreds of millions of dollars who are unhappy. They have the education, family, and everything else on the list but they are not happy. There’s no amount of blessing that G-d could bestow on certain people to make them realize how many blessings they already possess.
It is as if G-d were speaking to us saying, “if you consider those qualities you already possess, then I will add to them; I will bless you. If not, why should I continue to shower you with blessings when you aren’t willing to acknowledge what you already possess?”
Herman Wouk, who will celebrate his 103rd birthday in two days, tells the story Irwin Edman, one of the most celebrated professors of philosophy at Columbia in the first part of the 20th century; he was one of Wouk’s academic mentors. Edman paid a shiva call to Wouk when Wouk’s father passed away and was able to meet Wouk’s grandfather, an old world Talmudic scholar. The conversation didn’t last long and “Irwin found Zaideh charming and full of good sense, if quaint and otherworldly in the extreme. It was an accurate enough Columbia appraisal, but I thought more of Zaideh than that.” Wouk continues,
Over tea and Mama’s honey cake, I told Irwin about his tragic life; two wives dying young, three brilliant sons lost in their youth, one after another, to old-country diseases; his surviving son, whom he adored, and partly supported, a chucklehead mooning around Palestine.; in short, a much bereaved scholar eking out an uprooted existence in a decaying South Bronx synagogue, his deep learning known only to a few other scholars who consulted him on divorces and other hard halachic matters. With all than, I pointed out, he was cheerful, happy, humorous, and indomitably optimistic, beyond anybody else I knew.
Life’s circumstances aren’t a gauge of the amount of blessing we receive in life. Our minds are the barometer of how much blessing we possess; we alone have the power to determine that. May we all realize the endless G-d given blessings we possess.
(Sources: [Bracha and Breicha], Breishis Rabba (39:11); Rabbeinu Bachya Devarim 8:10; Emek Davar, Bamidbar 6:24; The Will to Live On: This Is Our Heritage by Herman Wouk pp. 94-95)