Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Saying a blessing for the trees...

R' David with a boy from the Beis Aharon School of Pinsk
Had an interesting moment Tuesday morning. My friend R' David called me up and asked me to fix his bicycle. That R', in case you don't know, stands for rabbi. R' David is a very serious religion man, as he would say it. He is also extremely smart and very human as well which I think means that he is accessible for normal conversation. We go riding a little from time to time and we get together at least weekly for… discussions on the topic. I don't want to represent myself as any kind of genuinely religious person but I go to the synagogue on shabbos and am mildly observant of the traditions. All of this pretty new stuff to me, but I am happy to have it in my life mostly. But without question having R' David for a real friend is absolute plus.

When he came over I dragged my tool kit downstairs. We talked synagogue politics and suchg while I tried to straighten things out on his ride. But while I was getting the last of the squeaks and whistles out, R' David asked me if I knew that there was a special brucha, a blessing, that could be said at that very minute.

"Praise G-d who brings us two wheeled, self propelled vehicles that don't pollute the land?"

"Amen." He said. "But did you know that there is a special brucha for fruit trees?" Our garden is starting to awaken right now and two of the apple trees are full of delicate pink-white flowers. "This blessing can only be said one time in the year. If you get your siddur, I'll show it to you."

I finished the bike and went upstairs and got my siddur and on the way down found the specific blessing he was talking about. There is a section in the book which has blessings for special events. Some are intrinsic parts of the faith such as the blessings before eating bread or dinking wine, but there are also blessings for more exotic events such as smelling fragrant herbs or flowers, seeing strange looking people or animals or even for seeing a rainbow. I figured that the one he wanted to say was for seeing fruit trees bloom during the spring for the first time which goes like this:

Blessed are you Hashem, our G-d and king of the universe, for that nothing is lacking in our universe and that You created in it good creatures and good trees to cause mankind pleasure with them

I stumbled through the blessing in Hebrew (It is always good to try and at least make a show that you know what you are doing) and got another amen for the effort. But then David took the book and, facing the trees with feet together and eyes closed, gave the brucha a melody and chanted it with eloquence, solemnity and reverence. His voiced echoed around the square and in a moment became the only sound but for the rustling of the leaves in the breaze; time seemed to stop, at least for a moment. R' David is more than capable of making his points.

In the yard with us at this time were Baba Masha and a friend, two other adults who I didn’t know were passing through and a couple of girls were sitting on the swing on the other side of the garden fence. All of them we absolutly stunned at this turn of events. To most Belarusians, it has been my experience, simply being in the presence of a Chasidic rabbi is a rather shocking event in itself; even my dealing with David's bike in the yard brought some stares. But when he opened up the pipes and started to daven this wonderful only-once-a-year blessing, everybody stopped and turned. For sure the sound of his voice must have been as if coming from Mars. You could literally hear the synapses popping and exploding at the event.

I loved it.

As I passed Baba Masha onmy way back upstairs I explained to her that the Rabbi had just blessed our trees.

"Da, pravilno" -Yes, you need this, she replied with a face that said she had just witnessed a first sign of the apocalypse.

Give thanks for the pleasure we recieve from the good things in life
When speaking of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, it is often said that Belarus is the mildest about this. The country is not without its incidents of synagogue or monument desecration but most "specifically" Jewish guests, and this is to say Orthodox Jews who dress and act the part, say that they are treated with a more respect and receive more positive comments than in other places. There is no thought that they are seen as a normal part of things but they are not greeted with anger or hatred.

I am of course glad of this but I am not completely surprised. Traditionally, Belarusians are supposed to have the best manners. But as Easter has just come and went, and because I myself got an unlimited number of scornful looks for not observing that holiday, I have begun to think of a different way of looking at this issue.

If the last presidential elections showed us anything it is that it is still of vital importance for Belarusians to try to stay together in things. Unity and agreement were a fundamental part of communism and again, Belarusians were the best at that as well. But as of the moment there are not the restrictions placed on religion that there were during the USSR. In fact, if anything, it has completely swung the other direction and belonging to the Orthodox Church, specifically, has come to be considered a part of being normal. A byproduct of this is that because people like to think of themselves here as safely being in the middle of a group, the Orthodox Church goers have now combined their religious leanings with their nationalistic ideas and have become outright exclusionary and expectant that others follow suit and that not doing so is creating discord.

I understand that being excusive is a basic part of any religion and that probably this single fact was the cause of religion in general being banned from the USSR. But in reaccepting religion along with socialism, Belarus has found yet another reason to remain aloof. And of course in Belarus, you must belong and be a part of the group; one does not rock to boat here.

One example of this was when I inviited a non-Jewish Belarusian to play a little chess over at the synagogue. He refused but not on the basis that he is Christian, but that he is Belarusian. And you can't even explain to him that Judaism is a religion and not a nationality because in a Belarusian passport, if you are Jewish, it says so.

When David and I go riding we for sure make a sight and often, especially with kids, we draw laughs. But regardless of this or whatever the "go along to get along" status quo, I have no intentions of bending to any peer pressure and not being friends or pretending I am ashamed or, for either going to the synagogue or conversely, not going to church. And again, I am not out there preaching anything these days except that Poland should be accountable for its actions or maybe that Egor should hold himself to high standards in his scholastic and chess endeavors; I do not speak of the relevance of Jewish life and customs in conversation. But on the other hand, I am not convinced that showing something from an alternative point of view in general is an unhealthy thing- even in Belarus. Certainly one could never equate agreeing to go biking on a beautiful day with a Chasidic rabbi with the sort of "extremism" that got Gary Kasparov arrested in Moscow and fined $39 during the latest political protests. Kasparov by the way just happens to be R' David's uncle- David can't play chess like Kasparov but he is a very good Rabbi. But you would have to go a long, long, long way to show me that allowing for new ideas or open discussion in general is wrong. In fact I would go so far as to say that any healthy society, even one that demands cohesiveness and solidarity needs to leave its collective mind open to new thoughts and ideas. To me, this is just common sense.

So anyway, like I say the trees have started to bloom. And I for the life of me cannot see where this would not be worthy of a once a year blessing or even that the event should not be considered a blessing in and of itself. It is bicycle and gardening weather. The sun warms you again and the first fresh and fragrant herbs have crept back into our diet. And aparently, it is time to say a very special, once-a-year-only brucha for the fruit trees. Not to be confrontational about it, but frankly, you would also, regardless of affiliation, have to go a long, long, long way to explain to me why we should not feel a little thankful for this as well.

More soon…