Commentary

The Tragic Gap: Birkat Ha-Ilanot Amidst COVID-19

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Shmuel Hain

1. Shelo Hiser Be-Olamo Kelum

The world right now feels even more broken than usual. As the spouse of a healthcare worker on the front lines, I am terrified. As a community rabbi, I have already co-officiated at a funeral for a COVID-19 victim. The previously vibrant woman died alone and most of her family could not even attend the graveside service. Pop-up hospitals and temporary morgues in New York City and elsewhere are our unimaginable reality. At first glance, there is nothing more incongruous with this particular moment than the special blessing we recite during the month of Nisan-–the Birkat Ha-Ilanot.

Once a year, beginning on Rosh Hodesh Nisan, upon first witnessing the budding of fruit trees, we affirm that God’s world is perfect. The source for this Halakhah and for the text of this singular blessing is the Bavli in Berakhot (43b) which states:

One who goes out during the month of Nisan and sees (fruit) trees starting to blossom recites the blessing: “Barukh Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melekh Ha-Olam Shelo Hiser Be-Olamo Kelum (alt. Davar) U’Varah Vo Beriyot Tovot Ve-Ilanot Tovot Le-hanot Bahem Benei Adam.” Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has left nothing lacking in the world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees to give mankind pleasure.[1]

Rabbi Norman Lamm noted[2] that the formulation of this blessing is bold, and highly problematic. One could even suggest that the blessing suffers from a fatal flaw. How can we in good conscience utter the words of this blessing – shelo hiser be-olamo kelum– and praise God for a world with “nothing wanting?” In a world filled with so much suffering, with disease, tragedy, natural disasters, and evil, this is not just false praise, it is absolute fiction! When so much of society is broken, especially at this time of crisis, how can we have the audacity to make the outrageous claim shelo hiser be-olamo kelum?

It indeed is a fiction, but, as Rabbi Lamm explained, “oh, what a glorious fiction it is!” The fiction is precisely the point. Once a year, at the first signs of spring and renewal, we look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. We are hopelessly optimistic. And we proudly project that optimism with the blessing on budding fruit trees- shelo  hiser be-olamo kelum. During the month of Nisan, the time designated for past and future redemption, we momentarily overlook all of the imperfections of the world, maybe even ignore for a second all of the suffering during this horrific health crisis, and we unequivocally state- she-lo  hiser be-olamo kelum– what a flawless world you, God, have created.

This blessing, with its rich and challenging theological message, may also reflect a profound insight about our emotional well-being. When I was a Psychology major in college, one of the more controversial theories emerging at the time was the theory of Depressive Realism. Depressive realism argues that mildly depressed individuals may actually make more realistic inferences than do non-depressed individuals about the world around them and about contingent events, like the possibility of a tragedy occurring or a pandemic. Previously, depressed individuals were thought to have a skewed negative cognitive bias that resulted in distorted beliefs about the world. Depressive realism counters that this negativity may reflect a more accurate assessment of the world. Additional studies have revealed that non-depressed individuals’ estimations are the ones that are actually biased- in an overly positive direction. It turns out our emotional health and well being may be aided by an overly optimistic perspective on the world; a positive cognitive bias promotes greater happiness, satisfaction, and an increased ability to cope with adversity. Shelo  hiser be-olamo kelum, indeed.

This blessing, then, represents Judaism’s annual spring-time asseveration of a positive cognitive bias. Throughout our history, even and especially during times of peril, we have confidently proclaimed shelo  hiser be-olamo kelum to inspire us to remain optimistic about the future of our people and of the entire world.

Indeed, the most profound experience I had reciting this blessing was on a trip to Poland 25 years ago this week. Enunciating this blessing on some fruit trees at the entrance of Auschwitz, in the shadow of the Shoah, I felt the full power of proclaiming shelo  hiser be-olamo kelum. I hope to once again have the opportunity to recite this blessing, full throatedly, even this year during this global pandemic. I hope to see the possibility of a perfect world with nothing lacking, especially now when we are all reeling from COVID-19.

I hope.

2. Borei Nefashot Rabot Ve-Hhesronan

There is another blessing of praise, one that is an everyday staple in Jewish liturgy, which seems to subvert Birkat Ha-Ilanot and its assertion of flawlessness. That blessing is Borei Nefashot, the baseline berakhah ahronah we say all the time after snack foods. The text of this blessing praises God who is borei nefashot rabot v-hesronan- the Creator of a variety of souls and hesronan- their deficiencies, flaws, or lackings. Rather than declaring that creation is flawless, this blessing does the opposite. It thanks God for what we are lacking, affirming all of our imperfections.

How can we, in Hodesh Nisan, proclaim that the world God created is flawless, while simultaneously thanking God for creating flawed souls?

There are a number of possible resolutions to this apparent contradiction,[3] but one meaningful explanation is to distinguish between the world God created and each individual nefesh- each being, each imperfect soul that God formed. Essentially, what we are acknowledging through borei nefashot is that God did not create people to be self-sufficient. Each one of us is incomplete and lacking. And that’s a blessed thing. Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado. We each need the love and support of another- a spouse, a parent, a child, or a close friend. We each need our community to help complete us- to make us better people, to inspire us, to learn from others and also to support us in times of need and celebrate with us in times of joy. We need our community to shape and inspire our Jewish values and commitments, and to educate and transmit our traditions in a sophisticated, relevant way to our children.

Borei Nefashot reminds us that no individual is complete on their own. It teaches us that we need help and we need to reach out to one another. We need to form partnerships and covenantal communities- as families, as shuls, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. We acknowledge and bless God for creating us in need, because it challenges us to seek out others for help and to seek out ways to help one another.

According to this perspective, the blessings do not contradict each other. The world God created, in toto, lacks nothing. Part of that completeness are the very deficiencies of each individual creature. Built into creation are the vulnerabilities of each being necessitating the other and community. If anything, these last few weeks have taught us how much we are social beings and how vital it is to live in community with others.

3. The Tragic Gap: Between Borei Nefashot and Birkat Ha-Ilanot

But there is an even more essential, even existential, dialectic presented by these two berakhot. Perhaps instead of resolving the tension between birkat ha-ilanot and borei nefashot, there is something particularly meaningful in holding on to these twin orientations, these dueling berakhot and their opposing formulations, simultaneously in our mind.

Holding both of these blessings at once demonstrates the capacity to stand and act in the space that Parker Palmer refers to as “the Tragic Gap.”[4] The Tragic Gap is the chasm between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it, albeit briefly. It is not called tragic because it is sad, but because (in the Greek myth and Shakespearian sense of the word) it is inevitable, inexorable. The form it takes changes over time, but there will always be a distance between what the world is and what it could and should be.

Palmer explains that to truly live with purpose in this world, we must learn how to function in the gap between what is and what could and should be. We must do whatever we can to narrow the Tragic Gap by improving our flawed existence. This work can be very difficult. Palmer notes that it is tempting to try to run away from the gap. If we cannot abide that tension, we resolve it by collapsing into one pole or the other. Some give in to the reality of the world as it is and adopt a posture of corrosive cynicism. If the world is so flawed, my only recourse is to make sure I look out for myself and get mine. Others slide into the pure possibility of irrelevant idealism. They ignore reality and do harm by promoting misplaced optimism.

But these two blessings, taken together, demand that we not give in to either impulse. We must resist equally both cynical and pollyannaish perspectives. Instead of sliding in one direction, these blessings invite us to fully inhabit the Tragic Gap. Birkat Ha-Ilanot allows us to experience, albeit briefly, a perfect world, even as Borei Nefashot affirms that living in a flawed world is an inescapable, and necessary, part of the human condition. These berakhot require us to hold the tension between reality and possibility in an active way, to take agency by standing in the gap and demonstrating with our own lives another way of creative living. Through these berakhot we broadcast our aspiration to bridge the gap, slowly working towards achieving a more perfect world.

During this Nisan, the Tragic Gap seems more like an untraversable gulf. In New York City, the latest epicenter of COVID-19, the numbers and images are horrifying and can be overwhelming. The instinct to give in to the dark reality of the present moment is natural. Stories about people running into hospitals to steal precious personal protective gear show how during dark times there are some who look out only for themselves. The attraction of overly optimistic or beautiful timelines that wish away the public health crisis in the near future is alluring. Let us, instead, take our cue from the people who are actively living in the Tragic Gap, in every sense of the phrase. The heroic health care workers on the front lines of this crisis are doing all they can to narrow the tragic gap and to bring about a better reality. Following their lead, we should all be inspired to fully actualize a world she-lo  hiser bo kelum, right now when it is ravaged by disease and isolation, and beyond.[5]


[1] See https://www.halachipedia.com/index.php?title=Birchat_Ilanot for a review of a number of practical halakhic issues regarding this blessing.

[2] I heard this from Rabbi Lamm in a very memorable address at my RIETS Hag Ha-Semikhah in late March 2002.

[3] Tosafot in Berakhot (37a s.v. “Borei”) for example, explain that the Hesronan of Borei Nefashot actually blesses God for creating necessities (like water and bread) which human beings require and would be incomplete without. This is in contrast to “Kol Ma She-Barah” which includes non-essential items. According to Tosafot, Borei Nefashot does not affirm our imperfections. It praises God for embedding in creation solutions for our needs. This is not the plain sense of the blessing and may reflect discomfort with praising God for creating deficiencies. For an overview of rabbinic literature on this blessing and how it may have evolved from two different blessings, see Yissachar Yaakovson, Netiv Binah: Vol. III, (1973), 99-103.

[4] See, for example, http://www.couragerenewal.org/the-tragic-gap/.

[5] This reflection is dedicated to all of the health care workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis.