A rare blessing
‘Chacham Harazim’: Another lesson in perspective
The March for Israel taking place today in Washington, D.C., will be an important moment of solidarity for the Jewish community, God willing. Much will be said out loud and still more will be said without words as we “pray with our feet.” This event could potentially be the largest intentional gathering of Jews in one place in our lifetimes, at least in North America.
To channel the old Apple ads: there is, indeed, a blessing for that. As I wrote in an earlier article for eJewishPhilanthropy, the blessing is as follows:
“Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, chacham harazim.”
“Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, knower of secrets.”
This blessing is recited upon seeing 600,000 Jews in one place – no mean feat today, and perhaps all the more so in the times of the Talmud (though there is some debate as to whether it is intended to be a precise number, or simply a stand-in for “a whole lot of people”).
This blessing has been living in my head rent-free for the past couple of weeks. Why, in this moment of convocation, do the rabbis not direct us to acknowledge the sheer multitude of people, or the impressiveness of the gathering? Why don’t we use this opportunity to offer praise to the Almighty for enabling such a massive group to gather as part of a concerted collective effort? An assembly this size presumably evokes God as an all-powerful sovereign, a transcendent ruler before whom we congregate in worship and praise. Why, in this circumstance, do we praise God as “knower of secrets?”
In Tractate Berachot (58a), the Talmud seems to ask that very question, and it also brings an answer: “[God] sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other … and God knows what is in each of their hearts.”
God is great not because of the sheer size of God’s people gathered in one place, but in God’s ability to truly know each and every individual person from among that seemingly faceless crowd.
Today, many of us will be focused on the “accurate count” of how many people will gather at the National Mall: which network undercounted, which one overcounted; how many old people, how many young people; how many from the left, how many right; how many people didn’t quite make it in time because of traffic on I-95, and so on. We run the risk of seeing this collective mass of people as, at best, a series of metrics — a cluster of data points that makes for a headline in the paper and a chyron on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
It is against this tendency that the rabbis caution us. The very fact that the rabbis chose the blessing Chacham Harazim for this type of occasion reminds us that crowds of such numbers are not faceless masses of people to be lumped together. Each one of the more than 600,000 individuals has his own story, her own needs and their own gifts to offer.
As the Talmud reminds us, no two people are alike, and there is value in that diversity. It’s true we are united in expressing our love for the people and land of Israel, our appreciation for those who stand with us, our opposition to antisemitism in all its vile forms and our demand for an immediate and unconditional release of innocent hostages. We are united in praying — not only for Jews, but for all of the people who make up Israeli society, and for a free and safe society for us to live and practice as Jews. Beyond that, though, we have many differences: in interests, priorities, particulars of strategy and preferences for the future of Israel and the Jewish People and the world. No person can know the complexity of any given one person’s political and ideological beliefs, let alone of each person in a crowd of several hundred thousand. No one of us can know what effect any of us might have on one another and on the world as we all work toward our sense of making this world a better place. That is the exclusive province of Divine Providence.
As we recite this blessing today, we remind ourselves to aspire to emulate the Almighty and to recognize that each person is an individual with a story to tell; and that even as each one of us is different, each of us is a part of a the whole Jewish community, with responsibility to a collective enterprise. As Fania Oz-Salzberger explains in her excellent essay in David Hazony’s Jewish Priorities, Jews have a long tradition of “civic-minded individualism,” an ethos that “demands the acknowledgment and celebration of thousands of specific persons in constant mutual engagement.”
It has been suggested that this blessing is one of several to be recited upon the arrival of the Messianic era. Presumably this is because many Jews will be gathered together, but perhaps it is also because we are a truly complete society when we acknowledge that each and every one of us is unique, and not simply another number to be counted.
Knower of that which is hidden: Please help us to acknowledge that which we do not know, and to strive to truly understand and respect one another, each in his/her/their own way. When we appreciate that fact, we will be able to have that much more appreciation for the fact that several hundred thousands of individual persons have all come together in this moment as am echad im lev echad — one nation with one heart.
Doron Kenter is the director of North American grantmaking for the Maimonides Fund.