Years ago I created a beracha, a blessing, for putting on my car seatbelt: Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has made us unique by giving us commandments and has commanded us to guard our lives.
It was the preventable death of a friend that prompted me to pay attention to this act of safe-keeping for which I had not developed a good habit. The tragedy provided one of those moments when the everyday dissolves to reveal something deeper. Such a moment, whether tragic or joyous, is a moment larger than itself—inviting, if not insisting, upon a change of thinking and behavior.
The Hebrew word, beracha has the sense of overflow. To make a beracha is to capture and hold the overflowing significance of a moment, to deepen (as James Hillman says) an event into an experience of enduring value.
In buckling my seatbelt habits to a beracha, I sought to change my life with support from something larger than myself.
Sages of old debated over whether a beracha required a special form and specific language or, whether words of the moment sufficed.
(Click here for a related discussion in an earlier post, The Art of Blessing)
Some insisted that the beracha must be the well formed vessel into which one could pour fluid experience. Response to any moment of grief or of joy would, therefore, take elegant and honored shape beyond any individual’s capacity for words.
Even the beracha-smiths who forged the forms were reluctant to speak only in their own voices. After they hammered out a standard introduction (Baruch ata/ Blessed are you…) these artists preferred to capture the theme of the beracha with a biblical quotation or allusion. As much as possible, they gathered their past in order to meet their present and address their future.
Soon there developed a repertoire of berachot, blessings, celebrating senses and experiences. Generations of those loyal to the form soon held that a beracha not minted by the sages was not a legitimate beracha. What we might call “beracha consciousness” involved joining the timely moment to a timeless beracha.
But some sages did not insist upon the readymade beracha fashioned by their colleagues. In their opinion, one could mark the overflow—the beracha—of a moment with one’s own words.
My seatbelt beracha emerges from the range of ancient conversations about making a beracha: Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has made us unique by giving us commandments and has commanded us—thus far, one of the ancient introductory formulae that gives my beracha the shape and resonance of tradition.
While there is no ancient beracha for seatbelts or for the act of protecting oneself, there are biblical verses that the sages saw as urging such behavior: Watch yourself, guard your life, and Guard your very lives (Deuteronomy 4:9,15). Witness the following story of a traveler who risks not responding to the greeting of a Roman official rather than interrupt his prayer:
A tale of pious person praying along the way: A Roman officer came and greeted him, but he did not respond. The official waited for him to complete his prayer and after he finished, said to him: Fool! Is it not written in your Torah: Watch yourself, guard your life, and, Guard your very lives? When I greeted you, why did you not respond? If I had were to cut off your head with my sword, who would demand justice for you?
(Click here for the Beracha and Talmudic story in Hebrew and English)
In the ongoing conversation between ancient texts and lived experience, these verses have been used in recent times to justify various health measures, such as discouraging smoking. But they have not—until now—entered into the religious imagination of beracha consciousness.
Blessed are you… who has commanded us to guard our lives. All of us travelers deserve to be strengthened by traveling with a tradition that we guard and that guards us.
Some timely thoughts for the coming Nine Days, when the tradition asks that we take extra caution in our daily activities and avoid unnecessary danger.