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by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

There is a well-known phenomenon called the "Is-that-what-I-sound-like?" phenomenon. It is usually experienced when someone hears his own voice replayed on a tape recorder, but I would like to make another application.



There is a well-known phenomenon called the "Is-that-what-I-sound-like?" phenomenon. It is usually experienced when someone hears his own voice replayed on a tape recorder, but I would like to make another application. The next time you recite a blessing, listen to yourself as you say it. Are you being careful to pronounce it properly, especially when you say Hashem's name and refer to His kingship? Or are parts of it mumbled or trampled over in an effort to more quickly experience that for which we are reciting the blessing?

Towards the end of this week's Torah portion, we are told of an embarrassing incident where a man, after having a dispute with the tribe of Dan, goes out and curses Hashem. The people are unsure what his punishment should be, and after Moses consults with Hashem, the blasphemer is taken outside the camp and stoned. Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 14th century commentator, wonders why the Torah records this event. For the honor of Hashem, the Torah should have forgotten an episode in which someone had the audacity to curse Hashem and should have only mentioned the resulting law that one who does so will be killed. Why is the episode recorded in its entirety?

Rabbeinu Bachya answers that it is recorded in order to teach us a profound, fundamental idea about reciting blessings, and how careful we must be when blessing Hashem. The verse tells us that the blasphemer fully pronounced G-d's name, and then cursed Him (Leviticus 23:11), an act for which he was worthy of the death penalty. We learn from this the flip-side that we, who bless Hashem, must also carefully pronounce Hashem's name, fully contemplating its meaning - that He is the eternal master of everything, who always was, is, and will be. For this we will be rewarded with life in the World to Come, and to convey this lesson the Torah felt it important to record the unfortunate episode of the blasphemer. By analyzing the way this man cursed Hashem, we can learn how to properly bless Him.

There are two verses in Psalms that seem to contradict one another. The first states, "To Hashem is the land and all that is in it" (24:1). The second tells us, "The heavens belong to Hashem, and the land He gave to Mankind" (115:16). Which is it? Does the land belong to Hashem, or was it given to people, as is stated in the second verse?

The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 35a) answers that these two verses are actually not contradictory. The first verse, in which the land belongs to Hashem, is referring to before a person recites a blessing. The second verse, where the land was given to Mankind, is referring to after the blessing is recited. Before a person recites a blessing, he is forbidden to derive pleasure from this world, and is considered to be stealing from what belongs to Hashem if he does. On the other hand, when a person does recite a blessing, the land is given to him, and he may then take pleasure in it.

This, writes the Chofetz Chaim, the saintly leader of world Jewry at the turn of the century, is why we have so many different blessings. The sages established a blessing for each and every pleasure that a person experiences in this world, in order that we should contemplate the source of the pleasure and thereby acquire it for ourselves before taking pleasure in it. If you look through a book on blessings, you'll see that this is true. For everything a person experiences - eating fruits, smelling spices, seeing a great ocean, a rainbow, a comet, hearing thunder, even going to the bathroom - our sages instituted a unique blessing, appropriate for each one.

So, when we sit down to eat a meal, when we go to sleep at night, or any other time we derive pleasure from this world, it is so important to say a blessing beforehand, lest we be stealing from the Creator of all. And when we say that blessing, we must try to first fully contemplate Hashem's name (remembering that He is the eternal master, who always was, is, and will be), and then clearly pronounce our blessing, word for word, as we learn from the blasphemer in this week's Torah portion. At all costs, we should make sure that if someone were to put one of our blessings on instant replay, we would never be forced to respond with an embarrassing, "Is that what I sound like?"


Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is attending the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Jerusalem.

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