A few mornings ago, as I wandered around my backyard draped in my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (don’t ask), I felt the urge to finish up my prayers so that I could get on with what I’m supposed to do.
That outlook was bad enough when I had a schedule to keep. Prayer is what I’m supposed to do, I would remind myself. It’s the way I’ve chosen to start my day. It’s not something to get out of the way so I can commence with the real stuff.
Now that I have quit my job and am not “supposed to” do anything, my impatience is just plain ridiculous. But the other day, the thought struck me from a different direction: I feel the need to finish counting my blessings so that I can start earning them.
That makes no sense, either. My notion of blessings is that they are, by definition, unearned. They’re a gift, not a paycheck. That’s the reason for my gratitude. To believe that I can earn blessings is to elevate my place in the universe, clinging to a false sense of control over the flow of events.
Paradoxically, to believe that I must earn blessings is to denigrate my place in the universe. It’s an outgrowth of my belief that I am not good enough “as is” — that I must earn the air I breathe and the space I take up. That belief, which is not an intellectual proposition but a gut feeling, denies the teaching that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, the way God intended us to be. (What I think or believe about God is a whole other question, to which I don’t have an answer.)
Thursday morning, leafing through Joseph Rosenstein’s prayerbook Siddur Eit Ratzon, my eye fell on a comment on Psalm 145. Like many psalms, it begins by praising God’s greatness and might. Then, Rosenstein points out, it takes a surprising turn.
“We would next expect to read examples of God’s powerful roles in history — the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt,” Rosenstein writes. “In this psalm, however, God’s great deeds, amazingly, are those of grace and compassion, love and kindness.”
Turning from the commentary to the psalm itself, I noticed that the descriptions of God’s great deeds are roughly equal in number to the accounting of God’s great traits. Gracious and compassionate. Slow to anger and great in kindness. Good to all. Close to all who call.
In other words, what God is — God’s essence — is just as important, just as praiseworthy, as what God does.
In my daily struggle to set aside my deeds and just be, that idea is a blessing indeed.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.