Introduction to Birkat Ha-gomel
by Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, United Synagogue of Hoboken, NJ
The traditional Jewish response to a brush with danger is to recite a blessing – just as we try to respond to every life experience with words of blessing.
It may appear to be a paradox that the Birkat Ha-gomel, the Blessing of Thanksgiving, is recited following the very most terrifying moments in our lives:
Barukh … ha-gomel l’hayavim tovot, she-g’malani kol tov.’
‘Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, sovereign of the universe, who bestows favor upon the undeserving, and has bestowed favor upon me.’
We express gratefulness, even though we know that our good fortune has nothing to do with our merit. We are all the ‘hayavim’ - the ‘undeserving’. This blessing acknowledges that the fundamental unfairness of the universe sometimes accrues to our advantage.
When we have a brush with danger, we have a special responsibility to experience a commonality with those who have suffered – to understand that, by rights, their fate could, or even should, have been our fate – and to contemplate the obligations that are ours as a result of our good fortune.
Many of us who were maximally affected by Hurricane Sandy emerged, despite all our pain and difficulty, with a heightened sense of gratitude.
In my community, many of those who lost power were saying: Thank God we only lost power and didn’t lose our running water.
And those who lost power and water were saying: Thank God we didn’t have material losses.
The people who had material losses were saying: Thank God our losses weren’t more severe than they were.
The people who lost cars were saying: Thank God I didn’t lose my living space.
And the people who had very significant losses in their homes were saying: Thank God we only lost things, and we didn’t lose our loved ones.
These feelings of gratitude do not necessarily replace the feelings of frustration and pain and loss and fear. Often our conflicting emotions coexist.
The Birkat Ha-gomel also reminds us of our responsibility at a time of danger to emulate God, who is known as ‘Ha-gomel’ – ‘the One who bestows kindness,’ as we respond to disaster and tragedy by bestowing kindness upon others.
Our tradition requires us to say this brakhah in the presence of the community and to be supported by that community because we need others to support us. We know that for many Jews who are used to being givers, accepting simple material support as well as emotional support is very challenging and perhaps painful. But our tradition teaches us that life involves mutuality. Sometime we are the givers, but we must equally know how to accept help.
Those of us who experienced a brush with danger are invited to rise and recite the Birkat Ha-gomel – after which the rest of us will respond with the traditional response to Birkat Ha-gomel: our prayer that God will continue to show you favor, and that you will continue to see all the favor that God shows you.