A Tale of Two Communities: the Gomel Blessing
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For those of you who have been generously following this series of little stories, these little slices of life during this time, this week marked a milestone. My husband has recovered from Covid-19 and wished to make the special blessing for people who have recovered from a serious illness. A little background on this infrequently recited blessing, which is called the Gomel.
As is written in the website Netivah.org, "The birkat hagomel originates in the Talmud, and is recited for a variety of situations. These occasions include being freed from jail, recovering from a serious illness, traveling at sea or through the desert, giving birth to a child, and surviving a mortal danger.
This blessing is often recited at a synagogue once the Torah has been read and in the presence of a minyan."
The Gomel Blessing
The supplicant recites:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַגּוֹמֵל לְחַיָּבִים טוֹבוֹת שֶׁגְּמָלַנִי כָּל טוֹב
The congregation responds:
מִי שֶׁגְמַלְךָ כֹּל טוֹב הוּא יִגְמַלְךָ כֹּל טוֹב סֶלָה
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovot she-g’malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the world, who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness. (From Sefaria)
My husband's Covid blessing happened twice this week and this small story reflects the new reality of the past months living in the time of a pandemic. Since early March, when houses of worship reluctantly closed their doors, communities of worship had to quickly reimagine life without that community meeting in person. Leaders of faith communities had to ask hard questions that had never been asked in the era of mass communication. What makes up a community? How can we offer our services when people do not stand in each other's presence? How can people pray together if they are not physically present in real time? How can we comfort one another, encourage each other, enjoy each other's company? How can leaders of faith communities connect hearts and emotional need and bridge the isolation that people feel while they are alone?
What ensued over the following weeks and months was a virtual beehive of activity. Religious services were broadcast live or recorded or synagogues could create a Zoom room. Rabbis and movements had to decide what composed a minyan in cyberspace? Which prayers could be read and which could not? Could kaddish be said? Could the Torah be read? Can Tachanun be said during a pandemic? Beyond that, rabbis, cantors, educators and synagogue boards had to devise with lightning speed a definition of community. People are social beings. If they are at home quarantining either with family, friends or alone, how could they create a community without individuals being in the same room? With the luxury of technology in 2020 they have tools to work with. What can be done on Zoom to create community? Can you cook together? Dance together? Sing? Create art? View art? Listen to music? Exercise? Learn Torah?
Step by step, with successes and failures along the way, community leaders have stepped up in a substantial way to feed the religious, social and communal needs of people in the community. Community leaders get an "A" for effort in creating virtual communities for as many individuals as they could gather, in ways novel and exciting.
That is where the Gomel blessings, my husband's personal story and Covid 19 intersect. For the past number of months we have found a virtual home, while our own synagogue was closed, at another synagogue nearby. My husband is someone who regularly attends morning minyan and I still say kaddish for my mom (that's how this blog started!). Each morning at 7:00 AM I enter my local Zoom minyan. Similar to our usual synagogue, the group is small. Each day different minyan members lead portions of the service. The Torah is not read because there is not a minyan and neither are portions of the service that demand a physical minyan such as the Bar'chu and the Kedusha. At our Zoom synagogue there are a important halachic (Jewish law) exceptions to this, including the mourner's kaddish. At each service participants are able to let the group know who they are recited kaddish for which connects all participants. After each service the participants wish each other a good day before they depart this virtual room. Each day I am sad to click the "end meeting" button to leave this small community.
After his recovery from Covid, Benny had a brief discussion with the rabbi, where he requested that he might be able to recite the Gomel blessing. Rabbi H of our "Zoom Shul" didn't answer us immediately, rather he studied how to make the recitation of Gomel possible within this new virtual reality. Although we did not speak about the rationale that Rabbi H used in making this decision, it was clear that he thoughtfully, respectfully and creatively researched the means to make saying the Gomel possible within the framework of Jewish law.
Rabbi H's solution was that Benny was able to say the Gomel blessing without the "Shem Malchut"(the words of the blessing that indicate the kingship of God) to a group of people who offered him their ears and their affirmation. To me, this small moment represented the full power of potential that exists within Judaism and a rabbi, to interpret Jewish law in such a way that allows a community to grow together in this difficult moment. This short blessing, no more than a few words, cemented our entire Jewish experience during Covid This was epitomized the creativity of the rabbis and other communal leaders who are able to create and build community, one Zoom rectangle at a time. The words and the action of this blessing connected Benny to his gratitude to be recovered, to God, and to his new tiny Zoom room community. It gloriously illustrated to me the power of a blessing and the enormous healing power that the Gomel represents and how having a community hear that blessing can affirm faith and healing.
Later that week Benny was able to go to the Sephardic minyan, the minyan he has attended for years each morning, and say the Gomel blessing a second time. This time he was able to proclaim the blessing in the presence of a minyan, in front of an open Sefer Torah. He was masked and his blessing was muffled, but it was said and heard in a way that fulfilled the halacha.
Two communities, two opportunities in one week to thank God for safety and recovery. One Gomel with Shem Malchut, one without. One in a virtual community, one in person. One in the presence of a Torah and one without. Each in a separated and meaningful community. Both experiences meaningful in different ways, both a statement about the power of community, both the virtual and the real.
This was but one moment for one individual during this unusual time. Due to the efforts of so many rabbis in so many communities, I am certain that Benny was not alone in the comfort he received. Although he sat in his living room alone in the house, the community was there for him. He was heard and people replied to his bracha. If you have been a fortunate beneficiary of a Zoom service or a service broadcast, or a study session, book review, cooking class, art class, recital, scavenger hunt, then you have personally witnessed Judaism evolve over the past few months. If you, God forbid, lost a parent over the past few months, it is through the efforts of community leaders that your community has been able to reach out to you in the most creative ways. If you have seen a Zoom Bat Mitzvah or a naming or a brit milah you are part of a changing world. Yes, Zoom and technology make this possible, but like the rabbis who created a new Jewish world after the destruction of the Temple thousands of years ago, the rabbis of today are creatively re-sculpting Jewish community right now, right here on this screen. Thank you.
"A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness". Schneur Zalman of Liadi"