This season of the Jewish New Year brings much reflection on the past year and how we want to live our lives in the future. Most of us know that gratitude is key to living a satisfied life, and this holiday season my rabbi in Madison, Laurie Zimmerman, focused on this subject in her sermon. She related a story by Mitchell Chefitz in which a newly graduated “Officer of the Law” encountered a man in rags. He commanded the man three times to “Come forward!” to no effect. Finally the man in rags said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
“Do with me?” the Officer of the Law mocked. “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward.”
“Now I know what to do with you,” the man in rags said, and as he spoke, he drew his sword. A swordfight followed in which, after putting up a good fight, the man in rags lowered his guard, and the Officer of the Law’s sword mistakenly ran through him. As the man died, he said, “I put upon you the Curse of Blessings. Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. And on the day you do not say a new blessing, you will die.”
The man in rags closed his eyes and then disappeared, and the Officer of the Law wondered whether his experience were real. But as the sun set, he felt life leaving him and in a panic uttered a blessing over the sunset. Life flowed back into him. From that day on, he said a new blessing every day, blessing abilities, then concrete things, relationships, and more. Word spread throughout the land that this previously pompous Officer of the Law was a source of blessing. He kept blessing the miracles of the world and found more and more things to bless.
Finally, he was about to turn 120 years old and decided on his birthday not to make a new blessing but to recount some of the blessings he had made before. As the sun set, he felt a chill coming into his body and did not utter a blessing. Then appeared the man in rags. “You!” the Officer of the Law exclaimed. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.”
“You don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent a hundred years ago to harvest your soul, but when I looked at you, so pompous and proud, there was nothing there to harvest. An empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become!”
The Officer of the Law could not help but say, “I feel blessed, dear God, that You have kept me alive and sustained me so I could attain this moment of insight.”
“Now look what you’ve done!” the man in rags said in frustration. “A new blessing!”
Life flowed back into the Officer of the Law, and he and the man in rags looked to each other, neither of them knowing quite what to do.
(Paraphrased from “The Curse of Blessings” in The Curse of Blessings: Sometimes, the Right Story Can Change Your Life by Mitchell Chefitz, 2006.)
The rabbi also recounted a tale of the crossing of the Red Sea. In the midst of this great miracle, two people, Reuven and Shimon, did not celebrate, but rather cursed the mud, saying it was just like Egypt. “Their eyes turned downwards, while the greatest of miracles was happening all around them.”
So often, like the pre-swordfight Officer of the Law, and like Reuven and Shimon, we don’t notice the blessings in our lives. We focus on what’s missing, on the negative. We become self-absorbed. This way of life drains the life from us, making us heartless and cold.
In contrast, waking up and saying a new blessing, showing gratitude consistently, brings us warmth and life, carries us into the present so we’re not living in the past or the future, and draws people closer to us. We become someone people appreciate and want to be around.
Marge Piercy’s poem, “The Art of Blessing the Day,” encourages us to create a life full of blessings: “Bless whatever you can / with eyes and hands and tongue. If you / can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”
At this time of reflection, I encourage you to find and express the blessings in your life, and to live as much as possible in the present. And, if you can’t bless it, change it. For me, that’s the way to create a life I want to live. A life that inspires me to jump out of bed in the morning excited to bless something new.