Dayyan HaEmet: Acknowledging the New Reality

Blessed are You, HaShem, Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Judge of Reality

The Mishnah [Berakhot 9:5] teaches:

חיב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה, שנאמר (דברים ו) ואהבת את יי אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך:

A person is obligated to recite a blessing, a berakhah, over bad things just as one recites a blessing over good things. As it is said, “And you shall love HaShem (YHVH) your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might” [Deuteronomy 6:5].

The Mishnah is simple — a Jewish person is obligated to recite a formulaic prayer, a berakhah, in response to the very good and the very bad things that occur. In these life shifting-events, there is something that impels one to acknowledge the change in one’s life-journey, and in the Jewish tradition, a berakhah offers the ritual structure to do so.

The Mishnah provides a well-known proof text to support its assertion. The opening line of the Ve’ahavta calls us to respond to God, identified by God’s personal name (YHVH) with ahavah, “love” — not love in the modern sense as an interior feeling but love in a covenantal sense; the external expression of love through one’s words and deeds.

The Mishnah explains the three modes of connecting to God with ahavah presented in the biblical verse.

The first reflects our complex psychological makeup:

בכל לבבך, בשני יצריך, ביצר טוב וביצר רע

With all your heart — [this means] with both of your inclinations, with the good inclination and with the evil inclination.

The second, our mortality

ובכל נפשך, אפלו הוא נוטל את נפשך.

And with all your soul — even if God takes your soul.

And the third, our physicality.

ובכל מאדך, בכל ממונך.

And with all your might — with all of your money.

And then, as is often the case in rabbinic literature, the Mishnah adds another opinion. Here, it is grounded on a clever word play, a three-way pun, reminding us that whatever we have, we ultimately neither earned nor deserved it.

דבר אחר בכל מאדך, בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך הוי מודה לו במאד מאד.

Another thought: With all your might [me’od] — with each and every measure [midah][1] that God measures out for you [modeid], acknowledge God [modeh] very much [me’od me’od].

The obligation to offer blessings for both good and bad things rests on the understanding that we have neither earned nor deserved our blessings or our curses. They just happen. That is the way our world works. It is a dynamic world of beginnings and endings, of birth and death.

Blessed are you, HaShem, our God, sovereign of the universe who is good and does good.

For most people, this berakhah is easy to recite. Few ask the question “why?” when good things happen. Philosophically, we may have trouble understanding what is meant by “the Good.” Theologically, we struggle to explain the relationship between God and “the Good.” Politically, economically and sociologically, we seek ways to share the goodness of creation. We nevertheless feel that we know intuitively when something good has happened to us. It is easy to say a berakhah when we feel ourselves blessed.

The obligation to offer blessings for both good and bad things rests on the understanding that we have neither earned nor deserved our blessings or our curses.

However, the English word “blessing” and the Hebrew word berakhah are not synonymous. In English, “blessing” refers to something good. In Hebrew, berakhah often refers to an awareness of things in the world. There are berakhot, “blessings,” for things that give us pleasure and enjoyment; and berakhot over natural phenomena, bodily functions, ritual and spiritual obligations; and berakhot over things unusual, frightening and awesome.

In English, blessings most often refer to good experiences in the physical and psychological realms. In Hebrew, however, berakhot point to spiritual and moral opportunities.

Both good and bad events are challenging. When we experience a great good, we seldom ask if we deserved it. In fact, asking that question often seems to indicate that we have a weak sense of self. Reciting the berakhah, HaTov vehaMeitiv — “the One Who is Good and Does Good,” refocuses the question and uplifts our self-understanding. The berakhah is more than an expression of gratitude. It shifts our focus from the question “why?” to an acknowledgement of the potential for growth provided by the experience. When we have experienced something good, our challenge is to find ways to use that experience for good.

The berakhah over bad experiences — specifically, the death of a loved one — is harder to recite. In times of trouble, we are more likely to focus on the question of “why?” This is a challenging philosophical and theological question, but there is no answer that can satisfy the needs of a broken heart.

A berakhah/“blessing” shifts our focus to an acknowledgement of the potential for growth provided by the experience. When we have experienced something good, our challenge is to find ways to use that experience for good.

While sitting in a library, a theologian or philosopher may seek a rational answer to that question. The pastoral response is different. There the focus moves from the question to the one asking the question. The goal is not to provide an answer but to help the questioner explore the question and to acknowledge the tragedy that underlies it.

Here, “why?” appears not as much as a question but as a cry — the cry of the soul when the world seems to collapse and all dreams and expectations appear lost. Healing can only begin with an acceptance of that new reality, albeit difficult and painful.

Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, sovereign of the universe, judge of our new reality.

The berakhah, Dayyan HaEmet,[2] embodies this pastoral insight. It provides a ritual expression of the new reality created by the loss. But as a berakhah, it does something more. It provides a ritual structure through which one can mark the loss.

Death is the liminal moment. It brings us to the outer boundary of human existence. While we cannot peer into the realm of death, we can see clearly that our immediate world has changed. Something central is gone, and in the gap, all that remains is the potential to create something new. But the gap seems so large and we have no idea how to fill it. The fathomless pain of a sudden loss forces us to see the world from a new perspective and offers us the opportunity to discover greater meaning and purpose.

But at the moment the berakhah is recited, none of this is clear. The emotional response is overwhelming. The words provide no answer. But they offer the structure of ritual and plant the seeds of the ideas that will bring strength and healing if they are allowed to grow.

Unlike the berakhah over fortunate events (HaTov veHaMeitiv/the One who is Good and Does Good), the berakhah over heartbreaking events (Dayyan HaEmet/the Judge of Reality) says little about God. When fortune favors us, it is easy to imagine God’s hand behind it. Acknowledging God’s goodness is simple. Saying something about God in moments of deep sadness and pain, moments when God’s goodness and love disappear, is nearly impossible.

So the berakhah over sadness says little about God. Unlike other berakhot, the berakhah Dayyan HaEmet is truncated. There is no action component. By contrast, upon eating bread, the berakhah declares God as the one who brings forth food. Similarly, upon seeing a rainbow, the berakhah proclaims God as the one who remembers the covenant; before performing a ritual act, the berakhah presents God as the one who provides a way to holiness for us; upon experiencing something good, the berakhah, HaTov veHaMeitiv, acknowledges God as the one who does good things. Upon experiencing a loss, however, the berakhah, Dayyan HaEmet, has nothing to say about what God does.

This berakhah only says that God is present in our world by describing God as sovereign of the universe (Melech HaOlam) and judge of reality (Dayyan HaEmet). The two statements parallel each other [sovereign/judge (melech/dayyan) and universe/reality (haolam/haemet)]. The berakhah proclaims that God is and the World is. After that, there is only silence — the silence of death, the silence of the void, the silence at the moment of the creation of a new olam, a new world and a new emet, a new reality.

Many translators and interpreters flee from this understanding.[3] Far from their moment of grief, the existential silence is frightening. So they read the words in ways that reinforce a belief in God’s caring providence. By reading Dayyan HaEmet, the Judge of Reality, as “the True Judge,” they run from our awareness of the randomness of creation, and they seek to provide the cold comfort of a caring God whose plan for us is beyond our understanding. In the moment of loss, the moment when the reality of our life feels most chaotic, they deny our real sense of the disorder. At times of distress, despair and despondency, the message that what we confront is a righteous judgment or what we experienced is a part of an unknowable Divine Plan is as false as being reassured at that moment that God is good and does good.

At the moment of loss, all that we know is that our reality has changed. As we heal, if we heal, though the long process of mourning, we will learn to live within our new reality. The berakhah, Dayyan HaEmet, therefore does not seek to explain what has happened. It merely claims that God will be present in our new reality as God was present in our old. What that means, however, is not addressed.

As our reality continues to shift, as we confront the good and the bad things in life, our understandings of our world, of our place in that world and of the Divine One inherent in that world will continue to change. At times, things will seem coherent. At times, things will feel utterly confusing. Most of the time, we will adjust to the uncertainty, find a way to flow with the changes and appreciate each swing. As we live through the liminal moments, the words we say need to acknowledge the presence of the past, the power of the moment and the potential of the future.

Therefore, we say, “Barukh Dayyan HaEmet — With our tears, our anger, our fear, our loss, we acknowledge the Judge of our New Reality.”

 

[1] “with each and every measure” – בכל מדה ומדה: This may be understood as with each middah (“measure”) that God measures out — the measure of judgement (middat ha-din) and the measure of mercy (middat ha-rachamim). In this way, the passage parallels “good and bad,” and the “inclination for good” (yetzer tov) and the “inclination for bad” (yetzer hara).

[2] “Emet” – אמת: The Hebrew word emet is often translated as “true” or “truth,” but its range of meaning goes beyond the abstract binary distinction between true and false. It is used to describe that which is experientially reliable. It refers to what we can feel is real as well as that what we can demonstrate is accurate. It has the sense of being trustworthy, as in a true friend. The adjectival form, amiti – אמתי has the sense of something being real as opposed to being an illusion, dream or lie. There are many spiritual interpretations of the word. Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt in an article on Jewish mourning on her website Velveteen Rabbi cites a teaching of Rabbi Marcia Prager: [https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2012/04/judge-of-beginnings-middles-and-endings.html]

Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches that one answer can be found in the very letters of the blessing – specifically the Hebrew word אמת / emet, truth. The letters of the Hebrew word for “truth” are aleph, mem, and taf – the first letter of the alef-bet, the middle letter, and the last letter. What is true of every life? Every journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This reflects the Jewish ritual practice of those in mourning to recite a verse from Job: “The Eternal Gives and the Eternal takes, Blessed be the Eternal’s name forever.” after tearing a garment as an outward sign of grief and saying the beracha, “Dayyan HaEmet.” When this takes place at the beginning of a funeral service, I explain the verse as meaning “God is at the beginning of life and God is at the end of life, but we do not bless God for beginnings and endings but for the time of dear one with us.”

[3] An example of this can be found on the Chabad.org website: [https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1582773/jewish/The-Jewish-Blessing-on-Death.htm#footnote8a1582773] “Death is the most unexplainable concept that we face. Why did someone die when they did? Why did G‑d choose one person to live longer than the other? Why did the person have to suffer before his or her death?

However, even when it comes to death we are taught to bless G‑d; we say, “Blessed is the True Judge,” acknowledging that this is beyond our understanding.

There is an infinite difference between us and G‑d, and there is no way for us to understand His mysterious ways. We cannot comprehend; however, in spite of the pain of bereavement, we acknowledge that, ultimately, the “True Judge” knows what He is doing. [Based on a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, dated 19 Kislev 5728 (published in Torat Menachem — Menachem Tziyon, vol. 2, p. 539).]

This is difficult in a number of ways. It provides only a narrow understanding of Divine Providence. It denies the reality of the moment. It assumes that God’s Knowledge is only different from human knowledge in manner of degree. It restricts the ways in which a person can respond to the situation and ultimately, puts limits on God and our changing relationship with God.

The most charitable reading is that it is an attempt to encourage the bereaved to hang in there and wait until things start making sense again. But it invalidates the individual’s experience of loss. It makes our personal suffering a sacrifice for some unknown or unknowable good. It forces us into a rigid understanding of Divine sovereignty and justice.

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