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What Does It Mean for a Person to Be a Blessing?

A Personal Perspective: What I learned from my one day as a Rabbi.

Key points

  • Lowering expectations can help reduce anxiety.
  • A good way to start an introspection is to quiet the conscious mind so that you are not distracted.
  • Prayer can be a form of introspection.
  • Self-understanding is helpful in facing new challenges.
Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock
Source: Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

Sometimes, I share personal experiences with my patients as a way of reinforcing some of the life lessons we discuss during our counseling sessions. One such recent experience began on a Friday afternoon when one of my synagogue’s two Rabbis contacted me. He told me that both of the Rabbis just came down with COVID, and our Cantor was sick with the flu. That meant that our entire clergy was unavailable for the religious service the next day, when we were expecting a large attendance as we were about to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of twins.

This was the first time in my experience with synagogues that no member of the clergy was available to be present at a Saturday morning service. My Rabbi asked if I could help by leading the service, with the help of another congregant who would chant the prayers.

I am a native Hebrew speaker, have a working knowledge of the Bible, and actively participate in synagogue services on a weekly basis. As the service leader I would need to announce the page numbers, tell the congregation when to rise and sit, comment on the Torah reading of the day, and even deliver a short sermon in front of the large audience. All with less than a 24 hours notice. I recalled a famous saying by Rabbi Hillel: "If Not You, Then Who? If Not Now, Then When?" So, I said, “Yes.”

How does one face such a challenge? One step at a time. It is always a good plan to talk about issues with which one is familiar. Fortunately, Torah is full of stories that can be related to health and psychology, and thus I figured out relatively quickly what I would discuss. But how would I deal with my nervousness about serving the community well? My patients with performance anxiety understand well how I felt.

I decided it would help to lower expectations, so that I would not need to worry so much about doing well. So, after greeting the congregation I started services with the following anecdote: “My name is Ran Anbar. I am a congregant here. As you may know, long-distance airplane flights usually are piloted by two pilots. The reason for this is to allow them to rest, and also to have a back-up in case one pilot becomes incapacitated. Most airlines have a rule that the pilots should not eat the same meal on a flight, in case one of the meals causes people to get sick.

“Unfortunately, at our synagogue, while both of our Rabbis did not eat the same meal last week, they have both fell ill yesterday. Even our Cantor is out with an illness. And so, we have had to call on congregants to help run today’s service. We will do our best to help conduct a safe and comfortable flight. Please buckle up and forgive us for any rough patches, as we have had no time to rehearse.”

With this short introduction, which generated appreciative laughter, the congregation became an ally, rather than an audience that would expect perfection.

I focused my discussion of Torah and the sermon on the two verses that started the reading of the week, Genesis 12:1-2. These verses introduced Abram (later renamed Abraham) as he started the journey that led to his becoming the patriarch of the Jewish people.

“And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”

At the end of the second verse, Abram is called upon to be a blessing. A blessing can be defined as conferring prosperity, approval, or happiness. But what does it mean for a person to be a blessing? Perhaps this means that through our actions we help bring happiness and prosperity to those around us. Was I being a blessing by agreeing to lead services?

I suggest to my patients who are wondering about their life purpose that a good way to start answering that question is to ask oneself, “How can I be a blessing?”

Examining the first verse, I explained that “Go forth” is a translation of the Hebrew words lech lecha, which literally mean either “Go for yourself” or “Go to yourself.” What would it mean for someone to go to themselves? I proposed that this means to introspect. Why would God suggest that Abram introspect before going on a great journey? Perhaps because self-understanding is very helpful in facing new challenges.

As I teach my patients dealing with anxiety, when you recognize and remember your capabilities, you can realize that you have the ability to cope with most challenges.

I explained to the congregation that a good way to start an introspection is to quiet the conscious mind so that you are not distracted. I suggested three ways related to Judaism that can promote such introspection.

  • In chapter 2 of Genesis, we learn about the connection of breath and spirit. Thus, I suggested that focusing on breathing can help quiet our minds and bring us closer to understanding our spirit. For this purpose, you can take several breaths by inhaling slowly through your nose, holding your breath for a few seconds, and exhaling slowly through your mouth.
  • In chapter 37 of Genesis, we meet Joseph who is an interpreter of dreams. Thus, we learn that dream interpretation is another way to introspect. This should not involve looking up dream symbolism in books, because each person’s dream uses imagery and metaphors that might be specific to that individual. Instead, dream interpretation is better done by quieting the mind, recalling a dream, and then imagining how it might end. Often, such an exercise brings new self-understandings to mind.
  • Prayer is yet another way of introspecting. We can understand this better by examining the Hebrew word for prayer, which is lehitpalel. Taken apart this word means, to (le) yourself (hit) judge (palel). In other words, prayer can represent an act of self-evaluation. Ways of quieting our conscious mind so we can be in a good state of mind for prayer include, (1) Going to a house of worship, and reciting words in a foreign language (e.g., Hebrew) for many moments; (2) Focusing on the music of prayer and allowing your feelings to be moved; or (3) Meditating on a single thought or object, including outside of a house of worship, such as something in nature.

Takeaway

Telling stories about real life situations gives patients different perspectives for better understanding the relevance of the approaches we discuss in counseling.

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