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A Blessing of Appreciation upon “Surviving”

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The Talmud (Berachot 54b) states that based upon four extremely dangerous situations listed in Psalms 107, any individual who has experienced an overt, life-threatening situation and survived, should give thanks in the presence of a quorum by reciting the following blessing:
 
Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the world, “HaGomeil” (Who rewards) the undeserving with goodness, and Who has rewarded me with goodness.
 
Upon hearing the public recitation of this blessing by the fortunate individual, those in attendance, in addition to responding with the standard: “Amen” (fig. what was just said is “true”) that is uttered whenever one hears someone reciting a blessing, add:
 
May He “SheGemalcha” (Who rewarded you [past tense]) with all goodness, “Yigmalcha” (reward you [future tense]) with all goodness forever.
 
Since the quorum mentioned in the Talmud that is required for this blessing, is also necessary for communal prayer, “Birchat HaGomel” usually takes place during the time when the Torah is read as part of the standard prayer service, i.e., the mornings of Shabbat, Yom Tov, every Monday and Thursday, as well as Shabbat afternoon. In practical terms, because of the blessing’s association with communal prayer, while not taking place as regularly as the communal prayers themselves since, thankfully, it is irregular for  individuals to experience and publicly acknowledge withstanding such trauma , nevertheless the practice of “Benching Gomeil” has assumed a role synonymous with the prayer of the community, and for all intents and purposes, has been incorporated within it.  Therefore, in my opinion, “Birchat HaGomeil” qualifies as a liturgical source for Jewish values.
This blessing is included under the rubric of “blessings of thanksgiving,” which include the blessings following eating and drinking (Birkat HaMazon), as well as the Hallel prayer that is precipitated by miracles performed on the community’s behalf.
 
However, the wording of “Birchat HaGomeil” is unique in that, unlike other “Birchot Hoda’ah,” it stresses a particular kind of existential relationship between the person whose life has been spared, and God, Who is posited as having been directly responsible for having saved the individual, i.e., the one reciting the blessing identifies him/herself as “undeserving” of such kindness. Furthermore, it seems to me that the English translation of “undeserving” does not capture the full connotation of the Hebrew word in the original text of the blessing: “Chayavim,” i.e., someone who is “obligated/deserving of severe punishment” (i.e., lacks any redeeming merits which would justify his having been spared serious harm.) The implication is, that if God has saved us, it is not due to any “merits” that we have accrued via hard work and virtuous living, but rather exclusively because of God’s beneficence and mercy.   
 
Applying the term “Chayavim” to someone who has just emerged physically unscathed from a “close call” appears to fly in the face of the Rabbinic dictum: (Ketuvot 13b) “A person must not look upon himself as an evildoer.” We are all assumed to have an overly jaundiced view of ourselves and therefore, any uncorroborated statements that we might make to the effect of our being less than perfect, are discounted from representing objective truth and cannot be used to prosecute us.
 
However, even if within a legal proceeding such as a trial, our personal confessions would not be given credence by the judges, we nevertheless are fully expected by Jewish tradition to psychologically hold ourselves in low esteem, particularly when in God’s presence. Perhaps the term “Chayavim” in Birchat HaGomeil represents yet another instance where Jews are expected to aspire to the moral value of true humility, a mindset that is deemed appropriate for the observant.
 
A similar assumption underlies a verb appearing in a verse towards the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy:
 
 (3:23) “’VaEtchanan’ (and I [Moses] besought) the LORD at that time, saying:”
RaShI s.v. VaEtchanan
The term “Chanun” (the root of the verb “VaEtchanan”) in every context signifies “a complete gift.” Even though the righteous should be able to articulate their supplications as extensions of their good deeds (and therefore demand, based upon considerations of fairness, that their previous good works be properly compensated,) they ask from God only “complete gifts.” …
 
Consequently, when this verse describes how Moses prayed that he ought to be allowed to enter the land of Israel, rather than citing any of the many holy and idealistic things that he had accomplished, primarily at God’s Behest, over the course of his full life, he threw himself completely upon God’s mercy, and expressed his desire to receive a “complete gift.” Moses’ request was subsequently turned down by the Divine—see Ibid. 26. Perhaps God, Who is supposed to set the highest, most absolute standards of fairness, could “rationalize” saying “no” because Moses was not demanding to be compensated, but rather he only wished to receive a Divine gift. The ensuing conclusion emerging from defining Moses’ prayer in this fashion is that if someone as spiritually accomplished as he, would present his supplications independent of any sense of being “owed” special consideration, more “ordinary” human beings, such as ourselves, ought to have no recourse other than to follow the great prophet’s example.
 
RaShI’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 3:23, in turn, calls to mind a comment at the beginning of a chapter in the Mishna: 
Ethics of the Fathers 1:3
Antignos from Socho… used to say: Do not act as servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but rather like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward…
 
Antignos apparently believes that what we do in order to address high ideals, should be done without any ulterior motives, but rather out of a sense that these are simply the “right” things to do.
 
               By extension, regarding “Birchat HaGomeil,” if by reciting this blessing in public, we are made to realize that our lives have been saved solely because of Divine Compassion rather than anything having to do with our own “lights,” this should promote within us, rather than an attitude of self-sufficiency, a sense of powerful dependency, another significant Jewish value.
 
Finally, a similar sentiment informs the “Modeh Ani” prayer, which is the first thing that is be recited when we wake up every morning, resulting in its being a statement that is far more ubiquitous than “Birchat HaGomeil,” the former being mandated 365 days each year, following a night of “unconsciousness”:
 
I give thanks before you, King, living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion (not because You are legally bound to do so); abundant is Your faithfulness!
 
“Birchat HaGomeil” serves as a stark reminder to both the one reciting the blessing as well as to the congregation who respond, that we must not give-in to the narcissism to which man, particularly someone whose life has gone well, is often susceptible (see Deutermonomy 8:17,) but rather to discern that we are not personally owed anything, and therefore must be deeply appreciative of any perceived kindness that we experience over the course of our lives.
 
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://yaakovbieler@wordpress.com  and his website can be accessed at https://rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com.
 
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the each of the first three Quarters of 5779. You can see the most recent entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
 
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.

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