The Blessing Recited Upon Seeing 600,000 Jews in One Place: A Lesson in Perspective

By Doron Kenter

A few weeks ago, while reading My Jewish Learning, I came across a blessing that I hadn’t seen in some time. It goes as follows:

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, knower of secrets.
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, chacham harazeem.

The 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”). Since coming across that relatively unknown blessing, I have not been able to stop thinking about the Rabbis’ decision in crafting it. Why, in that moment, do the Rabbis not direct us to acknowledge the sheer multitude of people, or the impressiveness of the gathering? That size an assembly presumably evokes God as All-Powerful Sovereign, a Transcendent Ruler before whom we congregate in worship and praise! Why, then, do we praise God as “Knower of secrets?”

The Talmud, in Tractate Brachot (58a), seems to ask that very question. It asks (and answers):

Why [do we say this particular blessing]? [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 – God’s greatness lies in God’s ability to truly know each and every individual person from among that seemingly faceless crowd. This blessing, then, reminds us to think twice about several of the assumptions that we may be tempted to make, even in the midst of our great successes.

Chacham Harazim: Putting It in Perspective

It can be tempting to take our metrics at face value (pun mildly intended). And modern technology has helped us to weave stories out of even the most complicated data. If we are using the right metrics, we have much to learn and (hopefully) much to be proud of, in a meaningful, systemic way. But at the same time, Big Data has turned each of us into a metric, a demographic, a data point informing the next brand strategy. So even as we celebrate 600,000 of us in one place, we must stop to truly assess who we are and what we have accomplished.

Indeed, the more something grows, the more we risk losing sight of every individual’s uniqueness, the potential impact that we can have on that person, and the ripple effects that may follow. The very fact that the Rabbis chose Chacham Harazim (Knower of Secrets) for this blessing reminds us that crowds of such numbers are not faceless masses of people to be lumped together. Each of the 600,000+ individuals has his own story, her own needs, their own gifts to offer. As the Talmud reminds us, each person looks different and is different. No two people are alike, and there is value in that diversity.

Despite the availability of advanced data and CRM software, we are fallible. We cannot know who each person is, what is best for her, and what impact she will have on others. Even the most sophisticated metrics cannot perfectly predict personal or communal outcomes. Perhaps a conversation had while decorating a sukkah will later lead someone to remind a co-worker of the profoundly challenging state of political affairs in Israel, and the importance of truly studying the issue. Perhaps the presence of people of all backgrounds at a community dinner will sensitize an executive to the value of diversity and menschlichkeit in hiring decisions. Perhaps that piece of text learned at a teen convention will set a high school student on the path to becoming the next Great Jewish Educator. Or perhaps that one nasty look will drive a family away from the synagogue. Perhaps that one “harmless joke” will trigger a prior or ongoing trauma, setting off heartache, depression, or worse.

This Butterfly Effect (perhaps made most famous by Professor Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park) is the province of the Unknown, of the Divine. Yet we remind ourselves to aspire to emulate the Divine, to view, respect, and understand each person as an individual, with a story to tell.

It has been suggested that the chacham harazim blessing is one of several to be recited upon the arrival of the Messianic era. Presumably, this is because 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.

Chacham Harazim – Knower of that which is hidden – 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.

Doron Kenter is a program officer at Maimonides Fund.