The Blessing of Blessings
By Susan Kaplow | September 12, 2021
Living Waters by Susan Kaplow
In my late seventies, I would never have expected to learn anything new about blessings. With decades of repetitions and study of brachot behind me, I couldn’t have imagined there was anything else to understand about this central aspect of our Jewish tradition. Yet just a short while ago, AJS offered me a hiddush (innovation).
Brachot have been with me all of my life. As a little girl, I made my father beam with pride as I recited the blessings for Shabbat and Hanukkah. By the time I attended Jewish summer camp, I knew all the words to the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) and the Sh’ma and its blessings. As an adult in Albany, NY, I joined an egalitarian minyan where I led the blessings over the Torah and the musaf Amidah for Shabbat. Later in life, I moved to NYC where I studied the talmud tractate Brachot at Drisha Institute. In shul and at home, blessings have continued to be with me like a well known longtime companion.
What a surprise, then, to find a radical new take on blessings in a text offered by both R' Lauren and R' Daniel in separate courses! They each brought this same text by Rishe Groner, founder of The Gene-Sis, a post-Hasidic movement towards embodied experience and personal growth through Jewish mystical texts:
...in Hebrew, the word "bracha" has a quite literal meaning coming from its shared root with the word for "breicha", literally, "pool". A pool is a body of water that has been created from making space to hold it and collect it, outside of the normally rushing streams or rivers. The pool collects the waters from above or the waters from below, and grants us the freshness of water - the essence of Life. A bracha ... is a pool, a space that we create of openness within ourselves to receive the Shefa (divine abundance) and prosperity that we are praying for.... A blessing is a portal.
As I read and re-read these lines I realized where the potential power of a bracha actually resides: not in persuading a Higher Being to grant my wishes (a possibility I never believed in anyway) but in opening myself to receive what was flowing in my direction. This had a special meaning for me as an artist. I’d already had the experience of inspiration mysteriously appearing from a source seemingly outside myself. I had learned to call that source Shefa, which in Hebrew means flow. Now, instead of waiting for that flow to happen, I could use a bracha to call it into myself, opening the way to brilliant, new ideas.
I decided to start each day in the studio by reciting a blessing. But which one? Reviewing the many I knew, I couldn’t find any that seemed appropriate for beginning creative work. One day, a few weeks later and still unsure how to proceed, I was at my work table laying out fibers for a new piece. I realized I was humming and then what I was humming: the Shehecheyanu, our blessing of gratitude for being able to reach this time.
As I began singing out loud the rousing version I’d learned years ago at my shul, so many memories came to mind: I’d sung it at my art openings; when a dear friend was released from prison; when a course of chemotherapy was finally over; and, most recently, at my first in-person Shabbat dinner with friends since COVID began. As always, chanting the bracha brought tears to my eyes and made this very moment new and precious.
For the past few months, I’ve begun every day in the studio by singing the Shehecheyanu. Contrary to my wildly inflated expectations, brilliant new ideas have not come flowing down like manna from heaven. More than once I have thought of abandoning what seemed like a fruitless practice. But, reminding myself to give it time, I have persisted.
Little by little I have noticed that the pool of patience for my process has begun to deepen. I am easier with the inevitable false starts and mistakes, with my own imperfect craft and my limited vision. I’m able to experiment with less anxiety about immediate results and to be more playful with materials and ideas. This is the gift the flow is bringing me. Apparently the source of Shefa is wiser about what I need than I am. V’higiyani lazman ha-zeh. Amen.
Susan Kaplow is a visual artist based in NYC. Her website: susankaplow.com.