Whom to Thank

“Rabbi, is there a blessing to thank G-d for saving your life?” Rabbi Goodman absentmindedly muttered that this was an unusual question no one had ever asked him before. Peering at me from over his wire rimmed glasses he asked,” Are you a member of my congregation?”

It was five in the afternoon and the Reform temple was closing with most of the lights turned off for the night. The Rabbi haltingly reached for his overcoat while glancing at his watch and hesitated for a moment. Placing his briefcase on the floor he eyed me curiously as I answered, “No Rabbi, I am not.” My heart sank as I suspected my question would remain unanswered and imagined the Rabbi rushing home to his family. Instead Rabbi Goodman said, “Come with me,” as I followed him into his office.

As we entered the book lined office accented with brightly colored modern Judaic prints, and shiny statuettes of Biblical personalities, Rabbi Goodman threw his overcoat over the back of his chair and began browsing in his library. Sitting quietly, I pondered the recent events that had brought me to this place.

Rabbi Goodman’s reputation had preceded him as he was a charismatic, popular, and youthful Rabbi. The Rabbi I had grown up with had been frailer and greyer, as I thought a Rabbi should be, and certainly not as hip as Rabbi Goodman. Nevertheless, a Rabbi was just a Rabbi, and this one was local, available, and I was desperate to connect to something outside myself—something higher.

The accident that had left me with barely a couple of teaspoons of blood away from what could have been my untimely demise, had been over a year ago. It happened New Year’s Eve to be exact, but it was still as if it had happened only yesterday. Goosebumps shudders, and shockwaves of fear still hit me regularly on a daily basis, and I was still amazed that I was actually alive. Never had I been so alive before, since now every breath I took, every move I made, everything I experienced, even simple mundane things, took on a new dimension. Nothing could be taken for granted any longer, and I need to express my gratitude. Gratitude to whom though, and how was I to show it?

After what seemed to have been quite a long while, Rabbi Goodman suddenly took his nose out of his book and exclaimed,” Ah ha! That’s it! I have got it! Come back Friday night for services at 8:00 and you can say your blessing.” He slammed the book shut and led me out of the temple building.

Friday night services had never been my thing. The temple I grew up in offered all kinds of bribes to tempt me to attend but, to no avail. At the ripe old age of fourteen I had already come to the conclusion that Judaism had no answers to the dilemmas of the human condition. As a grown woman of twenty-five it seemed absurd that I should be planning to attend services now. The ideology I had adapted was as un-Jewish as possible. As an atheistic, left wing, politically correct, post modern feminist thinker, I traveled in academic circles. Religions of all kinds were definite opiates for all the uneducated masses.

No one could know that my brush with my mortality had dragged me down to the depths of such desperation that I would seek out the guidance of a clergy, especially a Jewish one. This would have to be kept secret, lest I risk ruining my reputation as a progressive thinker and be branded a reactionary Neanderthal. Attending the temple service, however, was not something I relished doing alone. Sally was my adventurous housemate who was game for anything and she kindly agreed to accompany me.

Friday night came and Sally and I entered the sanctuary with yarmulkes perched atop our long manes, and tallit wrapped like shawls around our progressive enlightened shoulders. “What a weird scene,” Sally whispered to me, as we took our places in the blue cushioned pews while feeling awkwardly out of place

The lights dimmed as the sounds of the organ music wafted towards the heavens. Looking up I was hoping to see more than just a ceiling above me. Rabbi Goodman, stood as an imposing figure on the bimah, dressed in his long flowing black robe and hat. Wanting desperately to feel something stir inside my soul, yearning to be touched by the divine, I watched and waited, expectantly as my mind wandered.

Lost deep in thought, I wondered, what if I had really died. Lying in the hospital room that fateful night, I could not take my eyes off the blip on the screen in front of me. “We almost lost you,” said the doctor at my feet, dressed in white, like the angel of death.

How long had I been lying there? My lips could not move but in my mind and heart I was screaming in absolute terror, “G-d! G-d! Are you there? Do you exist? If so, can you hear me? I hope so. If so, G-d please listen to me. I am so scared. I am completely and totally frightened out of my wits. This is too freaky. I am envisioning myself in a wooden box, G-d and the worms are eating me up! And not only is it dark, but I am all alone. That G-d, is the scariest part, the part about being alone—forever. I guess there is no turning back G-d, after I am dead, it is kind of permanent, isn’t it G-d? Hey, G-d, you cannot do this to me. Do you hear me G-d? Hey, G-d, I am talking to you! Who do you think you are? I am only twenty-four years old G-d, and I have never had a chance to do anything with my life yet. I promise you that if you let me live I will be real good G-d, and I will do anything you want, if you exist that is. Okay G-d, do we have a deal?”

Rabbi Goodman’s booming voice snapped me back from the past,” And now we will have Ms. Budoff come up to the bimah to say the blessing of gratitude.” Feeling all the eyes of the congregation upon me, I rose and self consciously walked to the bimah. Rabbi Goodman handed me the silver pointer shaped like a hand and showed me the line in the open book. With a trembling voice I said the blessing and sat down in my pew.

“Sally,” I whispered,”nothing stirred.”

“What on earth are you talking about,” she whispered back quizzically.

“Never mind. It’s nothing. Nothing at all.”

Six months passed. Six months filled with a myriad of distractions, but all I could feel was a growing emptiness gnawing inside, deep inside my gut, inside my soul. Philosophy subjects left me feeling cold and bereft of meaning. Issues that I once had a passion for were now irrelevant. Relationships had become flat and uninspiring.

A campus psychologist told me that my reaction to having come close to death was a common one. Time would heal, he asserted. Yet, life seemed to pass me by while I waited in vain for this healing to start. Big questions lingered. What are we here for? What is our purpose? G-d are you there? G-d are you listening?

Although they had been hanging around for many months, one day I noticed them in the student union. Sitting at a table covered with books there was a young couple who resembled members of a production of Fiddler on The Roof. Across the wall behind them hung a banner saying, ‘Happy Chanukah from Chabad Lubavitch”. A sense of inner peace and happiness seemed to glow from inside them. Their demeanor suggested a sense of purpose and mission in life that I envied. Riddled with doubt and confusion, I hoped they could give me some answers about G-d’s existence.

“Rabbi, is there a blessing to thank G-d for saving your life?” I asked.

“Sure,” the Rabbi answered me readily while playfully stroking his medium black beard,” It is called benching gomel.”

It has been said that in life there are great moments of epiphany that are difficult to describe but, we know that they happened. Feeling for the first time that I had stumbled across something authentic, I could feel myself smile, not just on the outside, but an inner smile from deep within my soul. A formerly dormant inner dimension awoke.

“Rabbi, is there life after death in Judaism?” I asked stammering with excitement.

“Sure, it is called The World to Come.”

Without signing up or paying any fees, I immediately felt like a member of this Rabbi’s congregation. This young couple became my first teachers in my long journey back to Hashem. Never again would I put on a yarmulke or a tallit. Nowadays, my husband wears those, while my soul stirs, even soars, everyday since.

(This is a true story from my life)

9 comments on “Whom to Thank

  1. Is it helpful to be so negative about your former style of religion, just because you’ve come to halachic observance since?

    Also: are “enlightenment”, “progressiveness”, “thinking”, “feminist”, and “left wing” really the opposites of traditional Judaism? Please don’t rely on obscurantist labels and false dichotomies so much that you feel you should give up compassion for the stranger, the quest for knowledge, respect for all, or a desire to make things better in order to observe halacha – in reality, it’s all about the same thing.

  2. Ittay, maybe praying beside your loved one isn’t terrible, but the problem is that your are praying besides other peoples’ loved ones also. Can’t you see the distractions and potential problems there?

  3. Ittay,

    check out the January 4th post “Davening in English or Hebrew” and the comments. I think you’ll find them interesting

  4. ittay,
    Authentic Torah Judaism recognizes the kedusha of the Torah and its mitzvot. It is based on a 2,000 year tradition that accepts the Sinaitic revelation as having been commanded directly from G-d. This tradition, or Mesorah, defines the parameters of what is holy and of what constitutes mitzva observance.

    As there are ’70 faces to the Torah’ there are many different forms and strains within Torah Judaism. Chabad is only one of them. All are legitmate expressions of the theological principles of our Mesorah.

    There are movements founded by Jews (like Reform) that have so overstepped the parameters of the 2,000 year old tradition, that they contain only the external remnants, but not the inner tholeogical principles of authentic Torah Judaism.

    Authentic Torah Judaism is the rightful inheritance of every single Jew.

    While there may be many Jews who have ‘feel good experiences’ in other movements, and while each individual has the right to choose their own spiritual path, from the perspective of Mesorah, they are not benefitting fully from the kedusah or holiness that authentic Torah observance has to offer. Therefore, Mesorah teaches us that their efforts to come closer to Hashem, however earnest and sincere, are being impeded.

  5. Shoshana, I appreciate that approaching God is a very personal experience. It this instance of benching gomel your write that “nothing stirred” in your visit the Temple where this was not the case in your association with Chabad Lubavtich. Whilst I respect that this may be the case for you, there are many others who feel the opposite.

    Some may find the Chabad approach, including dressing in black clothes, the non inclusiveness of women in torah reading and mechitza to be a reason the choose Progressive Judaism. The may find it more “stirring” to pray in a language they speak, and to daven side by side with their loved ones.

    Whilst I do not daven in a Reform Temple, one must accept that for many, particularly in America, this path is their preferred way of practicing Judaism.

  6. Thanks Shoshana for sharing that powerful story. You sound like a person of great depth. I am so happy you found your way and so happy you survived the accident ordeal. H” must have big plans for you.

  7. Thanks for sharing your story Shoshanna.

    There’s a good editorial by Gary Rosenblatt in this week’s Jewish Week called Learning from Chabad which looks at Chabad’s successes in outreach and what the entire Jewish world can learn from them. I highly recommend reading it.

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