Day 11: Be a Blessing: Beyond Your Reach is Within Your Grasp

40 Days are just the beginning. Take a moment to read – Be a Blessing. Use the next few days to solidify your commitments. Believe in yourself and know that “Beyond Your Reach is Within Your Grasp.” – Rabbi Daniel Cohen

Is a Blessing a Noun or a Verb?

When I say the word blessing, what comes to mind? For many it may mean a blessing in prayer – the liturgy is filled with the words – Blessed are you Lord our G-d. It may be a blessing before we eat.  It may be the phrase “Bless you!” which we instinctively say when we hear someone sneeze.  In truth, though, although the notion of a blessing is thousands of years old in our faith, it is generally misunderstood, undervalued and infrequently harnessed to its fullest potential.

What is the real understanding of a blessing? To take it a step further – how do we understand the mandate G-d gave Abraham thousands of years ago when we commanded him and all of us to “Be a Blessing!”

What I am about to share with you will alter you understanding of a blessing. If we can discover its real meaning, we will be able to eternalize a message to carry forward for the rest of the year.

A Blessing emerges from the word – Bereichah which signifies a wellspring. The goal of a blessing is to unlock the potential within an experience, a person or a moment in time.

Think about it. When we began the holiday of Yom Kippur, we recited the blessing of Shehechiynau. It is a blessing that expresses our gratitude to the Almighty for reaching this moment in time. We recite these blessings at the beginning of every holiday and on special occasions. Why? It is not simply to honor but to raise our consciousness of the sanctity of the moment.  We pause and reflect on the sacredness of the day.

We recite a blessing before we eat to heighten our awareness that the act of eating is not simply a gastronomic experience to satisfy our appetite and taste buds but to deepen our appreciation of G-d’s bounty and our health. Through the blessing, we elevate a mundane act into a holy one.

If it is thundering outside, we do not just run for cover but recite a blessing and unlock the moment as one of spiritual recognition that G-d’s power fills the world.  When we see an ocean, after having not been to one in 30 days, we recite a blessing and ponder its resonance as an expression of G-d’s creation. This list is endless. The message is timeless.

We can now more fully comprehend the mandate from G-d to Abraham to be a blessing.  Commenting on these words in the Torah, Rashi, the master medieval commentator explains, that up until this moment in history G-d Himself was the repository of blessing. The Almighty blessed Adam and Noah. Now, He turns to Abraham and tells him that the power to bless is also in his hands.

In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “Abraham was charged with the mission of completing G-d’s work. He was the helper and companion of G-d through a dedicated effort of gradually enlightening the ignorant, ennobling the vulgar and coarse and revealing to man his great capability.  He must have had faith not only in G-d but in man. Abraham was such a person, one of patience and courage.”

When we were born as nation thousands of years ago, G-d was charging us to be a blessing to the world. Like Abraham, we are called upon to unlock and unearth the Divine sparks in nature and mankind. This is our legacy and this is our destiny.

This morning, on Yom Kippur, I want to challenge you to be the blessing you were meant to be for your friends and family. I know you may be thinking “who am I to bless other people”? This is the role of Rabbis or descendants of Aaron. You also may be thinking this concept sounds very Christian. We hear evangelicals fluent in the language of blessing.  Being a child born in the Bible belt, it was not uncommon to hear “May you be blessed.” Let us not forget, this is OUR heritage.

Essentially, Yom Kippur itself embodies this idea of becoming a blessing. The well know story of Jonah which we read this afternoon challenges us to rediscover its power in our lives.

On one level, the story of Jonah is one of forgiveness. Through sincere repentance of the people of Ninveh, G-d removes his decree to destroy the city. Yet, the connection runs deeper. It is a very personal narrative about Jonah. We are all familiar with the scene of Jonah running away from G-d because he does not want to be the bearer of a prophetic message to the inhabitants of Nineveh. He runs to a ship, tries to escape and is thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale. In the belly of the whale, he prays to G-d and realizes he cannot escape his mission.

What is happening?

In essence, G-d calls on Jonah to be the blessing to the people of Nineveh. He has a mission to unlock their capacity to repent and return. In the end, he cannot shirk this responsibility to be the blessing he was destined to be.

Yom Kippur is about motivating us to realize our G-d given potential. G-d has ordained each of us for personal spiritual greatness. Life gets in the way. We may fall into a rut. Get down on ourselves and forget the power within to make a difference in the world.  When we give someone a blessing and invoke G-d’s name, we are awakening them to their uniqueness and fortifying them with a belief and faith in G-d and in themselves.

When we give a blessing to someone else, we remind them of not only who they are but who they can be.

One of the most dramatic moments in our shul occurred on the second day of Rosh Hashanah before we began the service for the blowing of the shofar. As many of you know, our shofar blower, Stu Waldstreicher, struggled on the first day. He is a seasoned baal tokeah but sometimes no matter how prepared we may be it happens to the best of us that we do not perform up to our ability. Each of us, myself included, has experienced such a moment. The challenge after a stumble is to possess the inner courage and fortitude to get back up, try again and give it our very best. It is not always easy to regain our confidence. To Stu’s credit, he rose to the occasion on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. He blew with vigor and sustained energy. G-d willing, the sounds of the shofar will awaken G-d’s mercy and grant us a year of peace, love and growth.

Where did the courage come from? How we find our inner reservoir of strength?

Life will have disappointments and we will experience challenges. Whether us personally, our children, grandchildren or friends, we will need to dig deeper and find new wellsprings of inspiration.

In the seconds before Stu got up to blow on the second day, I was reminded of the answer.  The answer is a gift we possess endowed by G-d. It is an heirloom within our tradition stemming thousands of years. The Torah begins and ends with this gift. It is the power of a blessing.

Moments before Stu began on the second day, he showed me a letter that he had not seen in over many years. Bradley, his son, had discovered it that morning in a book, Great Jewish Men, that Stu had received as gift from Rabbi Blane for blowing the shofar in Queens a long time ago. Gregory, another son, gave the letter to Stu during Shacharit on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In the letter, Rabbi Blane thanked Stu for blowing the shofar so beautifully and blessed him with the strength and ability to do so for many years.  When Stu showed the note to me moments before he blew in our shul, we both sensed G-d’s mysterious ways and that this blessing from Rabbi Blane was exactly the right message at the right time. It gave Stu the faith that he had it within him to blow the shofar on the second day of Rosh Hashanah with clarity and confidence.

Little did Rabbi Blane know that his blessing would resonate years later in Stu’s life.

We truly possess infinite value. We may need reminders or a cheerleader in our life. We can be that blessing for another person.

A well known speaker started off his seminar by holding up a $20 bill. In the room of 200, he asked. “Who would like this $20 bill?”

Hands started going up. He said, “I am going to give this $20 to one of you – but first, let me do this.”

He proceeded to crumple the 20 dollar note up. He then asked. “Who still wants it?” Still the hands were up in the air.

“Well,” he replied, “what if I do this?” He dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked it up, now crumpled and dirty. “Now, who still wants it?”

Still the hands went into the air.

“My friends, you have all learned a very valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20.

Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make and the circumstances that come our way. We feel as though we are worthless; but no matter what happened or what will happen, we will never lose our value.

Dirty or clean, crumpled or finely creased, we are still priceless. The worth of our lives comes, not in what we do or who we know, but by …WHO WE ARE.

Every time we offer a blessing to someone – a friend or another human being, we become G-d’s partners to restore the shine of the Divine within. When we take a moment to invoke G-d’s name and affirm a person’s potential, we become catalysts to help a person recognize and access the Divine voice within and unleash infinite blessings to the world.

In this spirit, we bless our children and grandchildren.

Life throws curve balls. Our children are not perfect in every sport nor will they ace every exam.  Yet, our aspiration as parents and grandparents is to nurture within them the ability to find the Divine in every situation, grow from struggle and uncover and discover their unique potential.

Every day before Yom Kippur, I anxiously await a blessing from my father. I cherish his words albeit over the phone six thousand miles away. My year would not be the same if I did not hear the blessing. When he invokes G-d’s name, he reminds me to live up to my potential and emulate the strong Jewish identity of Ephraim and Menashe. I feel connected not only to my father but his father and beyond.

This year in particular, I was awakened to this power of blessing not only once a year but every day.  Our daughter Michal is studying in Israel. While at the airport as we were getting ready to say our goodbyes, Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a father place his hands on his daughter and invoke the timeless blessing of our faith. I realized at that moment that value of sharing the same wish for Michal as her send off to Israel.

The benefits of blessing our children, family members, or friends can be enormous. Make it a practice on every Friday night. A blessing can be offered any time or place. Perhaps pledge to take a few moments wherever possible to whisper a word of accomplishment in a child or spouse’s ear.

A mother shared with me the transformative power of a blessing in her home.  Her seven year old child was becoming characterized by a miserable countenance and drooping shoulders. They tried to correct the problem until they discovered the power of blessing. The parents gathered all of the children together and blessed their son by asking G-d to bless him with a radiant face, joy in his heart and a beautiful smile. The mother recalls that as she offered him this blessing, his eyes lit up and just kept on smiling. She shares that he is now possesses a different persona. There is a spirit of bracha, blessing in their home. Parents bless the children and the siblings bless each other. Their family has been transformed. There is more life in their home and their faith of G-d is growing. In fact, on their daily job chart, they have included, Give a blessing to a family member. Yom Kippur is a day to rediscover the power of bestowing blessing in our lives.

A Blessing is not only a noun but a verb for us to live by.

In a few moments, we will recite the prayer of Yizkor. We declare – “may their memories be for a blessing”. In truth, when we reflect on their lives, we realize that their memories will be blessing because in their lives they were a blessing to us. Because they touched us, they live in us.

Our lives will only be remembered for a blessing if we become a blessing to others and follow in the spirit of G-d’s command to Abraham to Be a Blessing. Our legacy endures to the extent we impact another human being. Our wish for the coming year is to be sealed in the book of life not merely take another breath but for the health to seize the opportunities to be a blessing.

G-d is counting on us to unlock the infinite goodness and greatness in our family, friend and the world.

I would like to conclude by offering our congregation a bracha. Our membership and community possess so many resources. I am amazed at the goodness we embody. I also realize that there is so much more each of us can do with our talents to unlock our blessings and uplift and enrich the lives of others.  I pray that G-d grants each of us the health, courage and wisdom to be our very best this coming year. May we invoke the power of blessings in our lives to deepen love in our families and community and strengthen our county and Israel.

Finally, I invoke a blessing bestowed upon 100,000 Jews gathered this summer at Met Life Stadium celebrating the completion of the seven and a half cycle of the Talmud. Rabbi Yissachar Frand, of Ner Israel in Baltimore, encouraged the attendees to try our best in the service of G-d. One page of Talmud one commitment to add a new course of study this year, one new mitzvah can be transformative.  He concluded by offering a blessing that embodies my message today: “Beyond Your Reach is Within Your Grasp.”

I say this to you today.

Do not underestimate your potential.

No one in this room should consider him or herself a one time a year Jew, a three time a year Jew, a Shabbat Jew or a daily Jew. Our mission is to be growth Jews. One step at a time.

I bless us that we look deep inside, become the blessings we are destined to be and merit to realize that beyond our reach is truly within our grasp.

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