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#340: Bless Yourself With This One Weird Trick!
Rashi on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeileikh, Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:18
A homeless man in New York City. Photo credit: Adjoajo, CCA-SA 4.0
Gimme Some Torah #340
Welcome new subscriber Rhonda!
וְהָיָ֡ה בְּשׇׁמְעוֹ֩ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֨י הָאָלָ֜ה הַזֹּ֗את וְהִתְבָּרֵ֨ךְ בִּלְבָב֤וֹ לֵאמֹר֙ שָׁל֣וֹם יִֽהְיֶה־לִּ֔י כִּ֛י בִּשְׁרִר֥וּת לִבִּ֖י אֵלֵ֑ךְ לְמַ֛עַן סְפ֥וֹת הָרָוָ֖ה אֶת־הַצְּמֵאָֽה׃
When hearing the words of these sanctions, they may bless themselves, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart”—to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.
In my house, blessing people who sneeze is a big deal. I did not grow up with this practice, but I did marry into it. If someone sneezes in my house and does not immediately receive the customary “Bless you!” the sneezer says something like, “I’m okay” or “Um, hello?” thus causing those who heard the sneeze to respond correctly.
At first, I thought this was a ridiculous thing to expect, but the practice has grown on me. Now I expect those around me to not ignore my sternutational spasms and bless me as any civilized human being should!
Having said that, do I really need anyone to bless me? May I just bless myself and get on with my day? Generally speaking, it is not possible for us to bless ourselves. Trying to do so is like tickling yourself or licking your own elbow—it just won’t work.
We see this idea in the Torah portion this week, where Moses talks about those who might “bless themselves,” thinking that their bad behavior will have no consequence. Rashi says that this kind of reflexive blessing is inauthentic:
והתברך בלבבו AND HE BLESS HIMSELF IN HIS HEART — The word וְהִתְבָּרֵךְ (v’hitbarekh) has the meaning of “blessing”. In his heart he will imagine for himself a blessing of peace, saying, “These curses will not come upon me, I shall have peace.”
In other words, Rashi is saying that blessing yourself is like making your own currency and trying to spend it. It’s counterfeit and it’s worth nothing at all.
There is, however, a workaround, a way to engineer a blessing for oneself. The trick is that in order to bless ourselves, we have to do something kind for those in desperate need. The Talmud (B. Bava Batra 9b) shows us how this works:
וְאָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק: כׇּל הַנּוֹתֵן פְּרוּטָה לְעָנִי – מִתְבָּרֵךְ בְּשֵׁשׁ בְּרָכוֹת, וְהַמְפַיְּיסוֹ בִּדְבָרִים – .מִתְבָּרֵךְ בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה בְּרָכוֹת
And Rabbi Yitzḥak says: Anyone who gives a peruta (a few cents—EG) to a poor person receives six blessings, and whoever consoles him with words of comfort and encouragement receives eleven blessings.
You can see from the Hebrew above that the word for “receives a blessing”, מִתְבָּרֵךְ, (mitbareikh) is the same verb that appears in Deut. 29:18, הִתְבָּרֵךְ (hitbarekh), differing only in tense. In both cases, the verb is the reflexive of ברך (b-r-kh, bless) and literally means “bless oneself.”
I find it interesting that we achieve a greater degree of “self-blessing” from offering consoling words than giving a paltry sum of money. I’ve given anywhere between 1 and 20 dollars to a homeless person, but I’ve never said anything other than “God bless you.”
To be honest, I’m not sure what else I would say.
What would you say to a homeless person as you give them some money?
We have tent cities of homeless people in the richest country to ever exist. What should we do about the problem?
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