Bar Kochba-era coins found in Jerusalem. (Photo/Wikimedia)
Bar Kochba-era coins found in Jerusalem. (Photo/Wikimedia)

In these times, acknowledge the bad, but don’t neglect the good

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Leviticus 25:1-27:34

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Over years of working with young children, and now parenting one, I’ve employed this sing-songy phrase countless times to pre-empt frustration and dissatisfaction, or at least coax it into the realm of acceptance.

This phrase came to mind recently when I was studying the theological message in the concluding Mishnah in Berachot.

I have been teaching Mishnah Berachot each morning on Zoom to members of the Congregation Beth Israel community (and others), dedicating it to loved ones who have passed in lieu of daily Kaddish. The learning is also dedicated to the refuah (healing) of family and friends suffering from Covid-19.

This week we had an opportunity to reflect on the teachings of the Mishnah Berachot. Its message felt emotionally fraught among mourners, and particularly challenging in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The final Mishnah (9:5) states: “One must bless [God] for the bad in the same way as one blesses for the good, as it says, ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might’” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Mishnah Berachot opens the first Mishna with the precept of accepting God’s omnipresence in the world through the obligation to recite the Shema and concludes with accepting God’s omnipotence in the world through the recitation of specific blessings on good and bad events.

Similarly, this week’s Torah portion includes both good (and bad) events that God could bring throughout the course of history.

These specific blessings are the following (Mishna 9:2): “For rain and for good news one says, “Baruch hatov v’hametiv” (Blessed be that is good and grants good”). For bad news one says, “Baruch dayan emet” (“Blessed be the true judge”).

Unfortunately, in these days of Covid-19, many have been making the blessing of Dayan Emet, in accepting the death of a loved one.

The blessing of HaTov v’HaMetiv is a bit more elusive. It’s origin is surprising: Following the crushing military defeat of Bar Kochba’s revolt against the Romans and the fall of Betar, the Romans finally gave permission to bury the martyrs, and the rabbis established HaTov v’HaMetiv on what they understood to be Divine blessing in preserving the bodies and allowing this final kindness to be performed in their honor.

Just as we bless on the bad, we bless on the good.

Rather than the passive acceptance of “you get what you get and you don’t get upset,” these blessings are active acknowledgements of both the bad and the good — and of forces bigger than ourselves at play in our lives (also for the good and for bad).

The obligation to bless in response to these events imbues us with agency in moments when things may seem beyond our control.

In these blessings, we acknowledge our human vulnerability as well as our unique ability to discern significant moments in our lives (the highs and the lows), and to imbue them with meaning.

In “Sages and Dreamers,” Elie Wiesel writes about the debate between Hillel and Shammai (whose other disagreements make up an entire chapter of Mishnah Berachot) over whether it would have been better — or easier or simpler — for humankind never to have been created given the vicissitudes of human existence.

“For it is not man’s privilege to choose either the time or the place of his birth, but it is his privilege to give his life a direction — and a justification. Both schools subscribed to this conclusion. And each of us must do likewise. This applies particularly to my generation. Having seen man without his mask, having penetrated the darkest zones of his being, we only know that some questions are doomed to remain unanswered. None of my contemporaries knows why he is alive — or rather, why he has survived, why he and not someone else. For us every moment is a moment of grace and wonder — we and we alone can give it meaning.”

In these times, we are obligated to acknowledge the bad — illness and death, the stark financial and emotional toll.

Yet the Mishnah in Berachot reminds us that we are obligated, as well, to acknowledge the good, and we do not ignore the bad in doing so.

We have blessings for moments of profound sadness and moments of pure joy. Following the model of Betar, we are obligated to acknowledge those moments of grace and wonder amid the loss, and to bless on the good and the One who does good.

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the former director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.