There is a Jewish blessing – a bracha – for just about every occasion and experience: blessings of gratitude before and after eating, before washing your hands, for putting on your shoes, for waking up in the morning, for studying Torah, welcoming a festival, seeing beautiful sights, upon hearing good news, upon hearing bad news, when fulfilling a mitzvah, and countless others. The purpose of offering a blessing is, as I understand it, to pause, give thanks, and over time train oneself not to take any moment for granted.
In the current parlance blessings are a “Jewish mindfulness practice”. That is, pausing to recite a bracha is a way to call oneself back from mindlessness or distraction and to refocus on the present moment, the only moment in which life is actually transpiring. Rather than stuff the sandwich into my mouth, I take a moment to notice and give thanks – a bracha – that I have a sandwich to eat. I become more mindful of the gifts of each particular moment.
I am not particularly skilled at this practice, but one of the nice things about it is that I have countless opportunities to try again. Infinite opportunities. Every single moment streaming by is another chance for me to bring my attention to the life I inhabit at this moment.
I have a favorite bracha. (I suspect that for those of you who are familiar with Hebrew blessings, this may be your favorite, too.) Whenever one reaches a new experience or occasion, or at least an occasion that has not happened yet this year, there is a particular blessing: “Blessed are You, Source of All, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” This is the Shehechiyanu blessing. (Shehechiyanu is the phrase that means “Who has kept us alive”.) I love the Shehechiyanu – it connotes for me that we are here, together, that we made it through another year and can once again give thanks. It is a poignant blessing that holds within it all of my unspoken thanks for all the moments and all the blessings I might have missed. Here we are, thank God.
My colleague Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell taught me an even deeper application of Shehechiyanu. We were teaching together earlier this year at a retreat run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi Jordan is an inspiring teacher of Jewish mindfulness meditation. During his session, Rabbi Jordan explained to us that because every single moment is actually new and unprecedented, we might consider the Shehechiyanu as a blessing that is appropriate for every single moment! In other words, we traditionally recite Shehechiyanu when we reach a special occasion; but what do we do when, while paying careful attention to the here and now, we realize that every single moment is a special occasion? Then the Shehechiyanu takes on a new dimension: Blessed are you, Source of All, who has kept me alive, sustained me, and allowed me to reach this moment. This unique, ineffable moment. This moment in which my finite being tastes infinity, and I pour out my speechless thanks.
From this understanding, we could say the Shehechiyanu every moment until the moment we take our final breath. A Jewish mantra. A mindfulness practice.
Since hearing Rabbi Jordan’s insight, I now carry the Shehechiyanu on both of these levels: the heartfelt expression of gratitude for reaching every special occasion on the calendar, and the awareness that indeed every single moment is a special occasion, worthy of gratitude. And so I was thinking: if you only know and recite one blessing, make it the Shehechiyanu.