Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-9:6
Of all the different neighborhoods in which I have lived, I will never forget Gibson Street. A beautiful quiet street in an urban oasis, it boasted one of the kindest and friendliest mail carriers. Each afternoon when our mail carrier came to deliver the mail, she would greet us, saying, “Have a blessed day.” Her passionate exhortation punctuated life on Gibson Street. Her sunny disposition and the incredible gratitude she reflected in the world remain with me many years after I moved away to other neighborhoods, other cities.
Somehow we ascertained that our mail carrier was not Jewish. But her consistent use of the word “blessed” intrigued me and eventually led me to reflect on her greeting vis-a-vis the Hebrew language. Her saying “Have a blessed day,” was in some ways the equivalent of hearing the Hebrew phrase, “baruch HaShem.” If our mail carrier had been Jewish, I believe she would have somehow included “baruch HaShem” in her ubiquitous greeting.
This Hebrew expression can mean many different things. It can mean, “thank God,” or “I am fine.” Unlike my mail carrier, who always sported an upbeat demeanor, one could say “baruch HaShem” and convey, “Don’t even ask. My enemies should have my troubles!” And it can also sound dubious. The tone in which it is said can reflect concern or hope that something or someone will be OK.
The phrase literally means: “Blessed is the name.” It sounds so Jewish that it may surprise some that the four times the phrase is uttered in the Torah, it is spoken by men who were not even Israelites. The first instance occurs when Noah, awakening from a wine-induced sleep, blesses his son Shem by saying, “baruch HaShem.” (Genesis 9:26) Noah, who is not an Israelite, acknowledges God in expressing his hopes for his son’s well-being.
The second instance occurs when the trusty Canaanite servant Eliezer is asked by his master Abraham to find the perfect wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Eliezer cries out “baruch HaShem” when Rebecca agrees to allow him to lodge the night with her family. Eliezer is one step closer to closing the deal — ensuring that Rebecca will eventually agree that she is Isaac’s bashert. (Gen. 24:27)
The third instance takes place when Isaac is offered a peace treaty by Abimelekh, the King of the Philistines. He invokes God’s name, “baruch HaShem,” and blesses Isaac. (Gen. 26:29)
And the fourth instance is found in this week’s Torah portion. Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law exclaims “baruch HaShem” upon learning of God’s deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians. (Exodus18:10)
Noah, Eliezer, Abilmelekh and Jethro are biblical men who were not in covenant with God, and yet they blessed God and those around them in the process. They are ancient models who remind us that people who are not Jewish have much to teach us about gratitude and blessing. And we need this reminding that if people not engaged in a covenant with the Jewish God are blessing God, all the more so we as Jews should do so too!
I have to confess: When the mail carrier first uttered the simple words, “Have a blessed day,” I really didn’t know how to react. I guess I smiled to myself, felt a bit awkward and perhaps even wrote her off as being really religious in her own tradition. But her consistent gratitude and acknowledgment of God in her everyday tasks eventually struck me as inspirational. She modeled a humble approach to life that I came to understand as holy.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jethro reminds us to be grateful for miracles, however we define them in our lives. He teaches us to listen closely, just as he did when Moses poured out his personal narrative of redemption. May we have the joy of experiencing a Noah, Eliezer, Abimelekh or Jethro in our own lives and may these experiences bring us closer to our covenant with God. Have a blessed day!
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at email@example.com.