Q: What do righteous, learned Torah scholars and newly observant Jews, or baalei teshuva, have in common?
A: The way they recite blessings.
No, it's not funny, nor meant to be. It's simply an easily confirmed observation and one that holds a thought worth thinking.
A Jew is enjoined by Jewish religious law to pronounce scores of blessings, or brachos, each day, acknowledging the Creator's glory and gifts to His creations. Many of the blessings are part of the prayer service; others are offered throughout the day, like before and after eating the blessings varying according to the type of food. There are brachos to be made upon seeing lightning and hearing thunder, on a rainbow, before smelling flowers or fragrant spices, after using the bathroom.
But ironically, so many opportunities to express gratitude to G-d make it easy for reverence to devolve into rote. Many of us bracha-making Jews find ourselves pronouncing the nine words meant to thank G-d for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple, for example, as a string of slurred semi-words, taking perhaps two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning.
Call it an occupational hazard of religious observance. When something is done regularly and often, it is only natural for the quality of the experience to become degraded with time. But natural needn't, and here doesn't, mean acceptable. And watching a true Torah scholar (who has succeeded in routing rote) or a baal teshuva (who is more attuned to his religious actions than some of us who are more "experienced") say a bracha can help remind us of how things are meant to be and inspire us to make them right.
A funny-sad story (considerably less humorous in writing than in my father's telling of it at the Sabbath table when I was a child) concerns a Polish Jewish peasant who owes a powerful landowner, or poritz, a good sum of money. Yankel somehow convinces the poritz to forgive the debt if he, the Jew, can teach a bear how to pray.
Faced with the need to produce results, Yankel obtains a cub and hands him a prayer-book with a drop of honey on its cover and on each of the book's pages. The bear wipes up the first drop of honey with its paw and puts it on his tongue. Bright bear that he is, he opens the book and locates and eats the other drops of honey too.
The next day, Yankel gives Boo-Boo the same prayer book, this time with a drop of honey only on every other page. The bear, with a murmur of disappointment at each page bearing only words, still manages to service his sweet tooth from the others. The following day the honey is only on random pages. The bear goes through the book, wiping up what drops of sweetness he finds and licking his paw, murmuring all the rest of the time.
The Jew is now ready. Presenting the cub to the poritz, he declares the animal synagogue-worthy and hands him the here-and-there-honeyed prayer book. The bear opens it, turns a few pages, murmuring all the while, then stops a minute to lick his finger before resuming the page-turning and murmuring. The poritz is not impressed. "That's not praying," he says sternly.
"Come with me," says the Jew, leading the poritz to the local synagogue. Morning services are underway and the Jew opens the door. Lo and behold, the poritz gazes upon an entire congregation of supplicants doing an excellent imitation of the bear. The poritz has no choice but to forgive the debt.
And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, other than those listening to the story, left to wonder whether their own prayers are something more than page-turning and mumbles.
Brachos, like prayers, are essential to Judaism. The very word "Jew" derives from the name "Judah", which the Talmud teaches is rooted in Judah's mother Leah's declaration that she was the beneficiary of "more than my share" of blessing. That refusal to take blessings for granted, that sense of gratitude to G-d, is what brachos embody.
And they can be accessed by all Jews, whatever their levels of observance, whatever their understanding of Judaism. Saying the required blessings throughout the day is not very difficult, nor does it offend any contemporary sensibilities. And there are many English-language guides to the pertinent laws. The practice of saying brachos may not currently be a common practice in most of the non-Orthodox Jewish world, but what is the future for for any of us if not to better the present?
What is more, were brachos more widely embraced among Jews, those of us who have always been saying them and are so "expert" at doing so that we slur our words and forget to think of what we're saying would have more examples from whom to learn and derive inspiration.
What a blessing that would be.