The Blessing Bee
The writer Rachel Maizes reflects on counting her blessings.
Illustration Credit: everything was as it should be, by Amanda Blake
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community that was crazy for blessings. Even the most ordinary action called for a blessing. Before eating an apple: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” We said a different blessing for bread, another one for cookies, another for vegetables. Finish a meal? Time to say a blessing.
When I awoke, I said the blessing for having my soul returned; when I went to bed, I praised the name of God forever. If my family was traveling, we said the blessing for safety along the way.
There was even a blessing for successfully going to the bathroom. Really. I appreciate that one more as I get older.
There were so many blessings, our teachers devised a “blessing bee” to test us. In the first round, the fourth-grade students at my Jewish parochial school stood up next to our graffiti-marked wooden desks. The teacher, who was also my aunt, a thin Israeli woman with a sharp nose and a tight wool suit, went around the room, row by row, naming foods. The student whose turn it was had to name the blessing for that food. A student who got it right remained standing. One who got it wrong, sat. If Morah Maizes (literally, “teacher Maizes”) thought the student should have known the answer, her nostrils flared and she lingered for a moment over the desk in thick silence before moving on. The classroom winner went on to compete in the schoolwide blessing bee.
I never made it and didn’t envy the kid standing at the front of the auditorium before 300 of the rest of us, trying desperately to remember if pound cake got the blessing for bread or the one for cookies. The winner of the school bee went on to the Five Towns bee. This was, after all, Long Island.
In my community, mourners said the Kaddish, the blessing for the dead. Every Sabbath, women blessed the candles and men blessed the wine. On the High Holy Days, descendants of the temple priests blessed the congregation. Friday nights, fathers blessed their children. There was a blessing for washing your hands and another for seeing the new moon. Every morning a boy said this blessing: “Thank God you have not made me a woman.” As a girl, I said this one: “Thank God you have made me as I am.”
The word blessing comes from the Proto-Germanic blodison, meaning “to hallow or mark with blood.” Blessings, like other prayers, replaced animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple as a way of expressing thanks to God. That’s a relief.
As a kid, I could be lazy about the requirement, shoving a stick of gum into my mouth without bothering with a blessing. I could be competitive, too, quizzing my friend: “I know the blessing for gum—do you?”
I like the expression of gratitude at the heart these blessings, but I no longer believe in God. Thanking God for food, life, or a good bowel movement would be disingenuous for me. I need a form of blessing that expresses gratitude for my good fortune without bringing God into it—a form that atheists, agnostics, and nontheists such as Buddhists could use.
Marcia Falk in The Book of Blessings has translated certain Jewish blessings into a nontheistic form. With Google, I find many examples of nontheistic prayers, including the Buddhist “May all beings be happy.”
Gratitude journals are all the rage right now, as studies have shown that regularly expressing gratitude makes one happier. The online retailer RedEnvelope sells a journal that says Gratitude on the cover—just in case you forgot what you were supposed to write inside.
As far as I’m concerned, modern-day life requires a new canon of blessings: one for cell phone reception, another for prechopped salad—without which I would never get any fiber. There should be a blessing for Google and another for Wikipedia. There should be a special blessing for second marriages, which we enter wiser and more grateful than we entered the first. Work deserves a blessing because it allows us to forget life’s pettiness—like the conversation I had yesterday afternoon with an acquaintance who described someone else (implication: as opposed to me) as a “real writer.” Feel free to add your own.
Because the blessings I said as a child were required, they became rote. I find my expressions of gratitude are more sincere when they arise spontaneously. But if I wait for inspiration, I may in the busyness of my life forget to express gratitude at all. I like to have a regular time to meditate on my blessings. A morning walk with my dogs (before they both passed) used to be my favorite time. Chance and Tilly, imperfect mutts—the one a fuzzy Australian Shepherd, the other a shiny black Lab—inspired me to joy and gratitude. I listed my blessings starting with them and went from there.
These days, when I notice myself worrying, I switch to counting my blessings. Likewise when I’m waiting—at the DMV, in traffic, in line at the supermarket (unless there’s a new gossip magazine)—time I would otherwise spend frustrated. Before I know it, whatever I’m waiting for has arrived and I haven’t even come to the end of my blessings.