Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Walk Article

WELL BLESS MY SOUL 

Vayechi-5779 

Rabbi David Walk 

 

Everybody wants a BRACHA. And this week's parsha is filled with them. As a ba'al teshuva into a Lithuanian heritage, brachot aren't a core issue. I remember in the early 70's when a young Chasiddishe fellow who learned one summer with Rabbi Soloveitchik in Boston asked the Rav for a bracha, before returning back to NYC (I'm gonna guess Brooklyn). Unfortunately, he did this publicly. The Rav was visibly embarrassed. He mumbled something about making brachot over apples. Then Rav Soloveitchik noticed the young man's discomfort and gave him a bracha to succeed in his learning. I've written about my own discomfort when being asked for brachot from students. On the other hand, I've always loved giving my children and grandchildren brachot Friday nights. As Cohanim recite, blessing is an act of love, and this week's parsha overflows with blessings and love, as we bid farewell to Ya'akov Avinu, Yisrael Saba. 

What is a bracha? Well wishing? Prayer? Cosmic connection? Guidance? I'm not sure, but I do believe that brachot do depend on the blessee (MEVURACH) as much as the blesser (MEVARECH). Ya'akov understood this, and that's why certain brachot contain warnings. I'd like to ask: Which is the best of these blessings? I mean some are easy to eliminate. Who wants to be a wolf or donkey? But some discuss wealth and power. My clear favorite was given to Dan:  LISHUATICHA KIVITI HASHEM. I've seen this beautiful phrase terribly translated as, I am waiting for Your Salvation, O Lord.' Really, 'waiting' for KIVITI?  It's much better rendered 'pray for (Rav Aryeh Kaplan)' or 'long for (Common English Bible)' or 'trust in (Living Bible)'. My personal choice is 'expect'. 'Wait for' is much too passive a position for TIKVA, which we usually translate 'hope'. 

This bracha is my favorite because it expresses the optimism and growth which brachot represent. A blessing should trigger a sense potential and expectation in the recipient. Brachot should be about inspiration for the other. 

But what is the 'salvation' referred to in the blessing? Good question. There are three approaches to the problem of who is expecting God's salvation. The most famous is expressed by Rashi. He explains that that this blessing refers to the most famous descendant of Dan, namely Shimshon. Shimshon was the only Judge captured and tortured by the enemies of Israel, in this case the Philistines. He could have grimly accepted his fate; instead he grittily affirmed his faith. With his last once of courage, Shimshon lashed his chains around the supporting pillars of his captors' palace, destroying the building and killing all its denizens. He believed in his ultimate victory til his dying breath (Shoftim 16:28-30). 

However, others (led by the Chizkuni) believe that the speaker is Dan, himself, seeing the future of his tribe. The father of this tribe of Israel is given a vision of his descendants' fate. The tribe of Dan will suffer greatly. Their initial portion was in the coastal plain, which is why the Tel Aviv area is called Gush Dan. That area was a crossroads for foreign empires, and eventually the tribe would move north to the area around Tel Dan, at the foot Mt. Hermon. He prays that his children will maintain their faith in Divine help rather the strategy of sneaky behavior described in verse 17: Dan will be a snake in the road.  

The translation of Yonaton ben Uziel (first century CE) gives another picture: Ya'akov is the speaker, and said that he didn't want the salvation of Gidon ben Yoash (Shoftim 6:11-7:22) and Shimshon ben Manoach, which were temporary, rather he continues to expect the victory of God through Mashiach from David, which will be eternal. 

When a blessing is bestowed, what is being communicated? The wishes of the blesser, the needs of the blessee, or a vision of the eventual destiny of our people. Of course, the answer is 'D', all of the above. And there's a custom in most prayer books which gives expression to the triple nature of this blessing. There's a custom of reciting the 13 Principles of Faith after Shacharit. Right after that we have this three-word blessing three times like this: LISHUATICHA KIVITI HASHEM, KIVITI HASHEM LISHUATICHA, HASHEM LISHUATICHA KIVITI. We're expressing all three possibilities; blesser (now), blessee (tomorrow), and destiny. 

I love this blessing. I've used it as a prayer when facing danger. It got good use during my IDF service. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I used it in huddles, when I coached an NCSY basketball team. It's a great expression of hope when the situation looks bleak. 

But like all blessings, it can't be used as a way of shirking responsibility. Instead, it's a confidence builder when striving to achieve a better outcome. When you see a sports team praying pregame, that doesn't mean that they're not going to try during the game. When we pray for a loved one who is ill, we still seek the best possible medical care. 

The first time I ever used this wonderful phrase as a prayer was in college. I sat down in this large room (501 Furst Hall, for those who know YU) for a final and repeated this a few times while the tests were being distributed. A friend failed the exam, and was distraught. This young man was nouveau frum, and had spent the previous night davening while the rest of us were studying. Prayers and blessings support effort, not replace it. 

Ya'akov, Dan and Shimshon were all about giving their absolute best to the task at hand. They knew full well that the road is long and they might not see its end, but they did their best to bring it closer. Vince Lombardi, before he became a Rest Stop on the NJ Turnpike said it well: 'Gentlemen, we will chase perfection relentlessly. We know we can't reach it. But we will catch excellence.' As a nation we chase perfection, and call it GEULA SHLEIMA, may we all catch it. 


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