“Once upon a time…” Just hearing the words our minds begin to soar – to far off places, distant galaxies, or childhood dreams. “Once upon a time…” – we hear the words and a shiver of anticipation runs down our spines, knowing that with a good story anything is possible. “Once upon a time…, Once upon a time – and we settle down in our chairs as the story finally unfolds.
Indeed, sometimes the most profound lessons are told in the simplest of stories. Sometimes the right story can even change your life. My colleague Rabbi Mitchell Chefetz is fond of telling just such a story. Once upon a time a long time ago, as he tells the story, there was an Officer of the Law, a newly minted graduate of the academy, filled with pride as you can imagine, in his crisp uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold epaulets, and ribbons for swordsmanship. If truth be told, and truth should be told in a story, he was as pompous and full of himself as he could be. Arrogant, callous even, and with his new sword gleaming at his side, bold and cold as he could be as well.
One day he was walking his beat and heard a commotion in the alley. He ventured into the darkness and there in the distance he saw a man in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. “Come forward now!” But the man in rags did not come forward. “I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward!”
The man in rags still did not move. Instead, he simply shifted his weight from one foot to the other and spoke, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
“Do with me?” the Officer of the Law mocked. “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law and I order you to come forward.”
“Ahh,” said the man in rags, “Now I know what to do with you,” and as he spoke he drew his sword. “Now I know exactly what to do,” and without another word he moved to attack.
“The Officer of the Law drew his own sword of course in defense. “Stop that!” he ordered. “Put down your sword right now or someone is going to get hurt for no reason.” But the man in rags did not stop. “STOP!” he said again, but to no avail and as the man in rags thrust his sword forward, the Officer of the Law was forced to retreat. Just as it seemed that the man in rags would actually prevail over the Officer, he suddenly lowered his guard, and what the Officer of the Law had intended as a parry became a thrust. His sword ran right through the man in rags.
“I didn’t mean that,” the Officer of the Law cried out. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why didn’t you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?”
But all the man in rags could say was, “I am leaving you, but as I do, I put upon you the Curse of Blessings.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Officer of the Law, now totally confused by all that had happened in that narrow alleyway.
“The Curse of Blessings is that every day you must say one new blessing, one you have never said before. On the day you do not say a new blessing, on that day you will die.”
The man in rags closed his eyes. The Officer of the Law turned away, looking here and there for someone to come and help but there was none to be found. When he turned back again, the man in rags had disappeared. He was gone.
“It must have been a dream or a nightmare,” The Officer of the Law thought. “I must have imagined the whole thing.”
The time by then was late in the afternoon. The sun was setting. And suddenly, as much as the Officer of the Law tried to ignore the feelings in his own body he could not. It was sunset, the end of every Jewish day (after all this is a Jewish story), and the Officer of the Law suddenly felt his body growing colder and colder and he knew for certain from the chill that slowly crept inward toward his heart that his life was actually leaving him.
In a panic he looked up at the fading light of the sky and shouted, “Oh my God, ahh thank you for creating this sunset.” At once warmth and life flowed back into him and he realized, with both shock and relief that the curse of blessings had been for real.
As you can imagine, the next morning he jumped out of bed and didn’t wait a moment before finding some words of blessing to say: “I bless the power that allowed me to go to sleep last night and wake up this morning.” As soon as the blessing was uttered, he felt a profound sense of security and inner peace that lasted the entire day. Of course the very next morning, he jumped out of bed once again, this time blessing his ability to stand up, and the following day he blessed his ability to tie his shoes.
Day after day he found abilities he could bless. That he could go to the bathroom, that he could brush his teeth, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger on his hands still worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. That he could speak and think, and walk, and sing, and feel another human being with his touch.
He blessed his clothes – every garment. He blessed his house, the roof, the floor, the furniture, every table and chair and bed and dresser and lamp and window.
When he finally ran out of things to bless, he began to bless relationships. He blessed his family and friends, his fellow workers, the people that he worked for and the ones who worked for him. He blessed the mail carrier and the clerks, the firefighters and the school teachers, the maintenance workers and the gardeners, the plumbers and the electricians and the doctors and the lawyers, the actors on stage and the musicians in the pit, and even the agents and managers, financial advisors and stock brokers.
And as he blessed the people in his life, one after another after another, he was surprised to find that they actually appreciated the blessings. His words were not mere words – they had power, they meant something. They drew family and friends closer to him and as word got out that this was an unusual Officer of the Law, one who spread blessings wherever he went people went out of their way to see him and be near him and thank him.
Years passed, decades. The Officer of the Law had to go farther a field to find new sources of blessings. He blessed city councils and university presidents, scientists and their discoveries, students and their intellectual struggles. And as he traveled the world he became in awe of its balance and beauty and blessed that as well. He realized that the more he learned, the more he had to bless. And because his life was long he had the opportunity to learn in every field.
He passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone and he turned his attention to searching for the purpose of life itself and the one source from which all blessings flow. He had long ago realized that he wasn’t the source of blessings, just the conduit, and the channel through which so many blessings were able to flow. And even that realization became a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.
Finally as he approached the age of one hundred and twenty, he decided that his life had been long enough. Even Moses had not lived longer than that. So on his birthday he made a conscious decision to utter no new blessing and finally allow his life to come to an end.
Still, he realized that he could recite old blessings, and throughout the day he reviewed them – all the blessings for his body and his possessions, for relationships that spread throughout the world, for the awesome beauty and balance of creation and for the deep pulse of purpose that he knew pervaded his very being. But no new blessing passed his lips.
And so as the sun was setting, a chill progressed inward and he did not resist. And as the twilight was fading a figure appeared. The man in rags. “You!” the Officer of the Law exclaimed. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.”
“You still don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent a hundred years ago to harvest your soul. But when I looked at you, you were so pompous, self-righteous, so full of yourself there was nothing there, no soul to harvest. Just an empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become.”
The Officer of the Law grasped in an instant all that had happened and how blessed he had been by this angel throughout his life and his gratitude for the blessings of his life simply overflowed and he couldn’t help himself: (Barukh ata Adonai….shehekheyanu…).
“Bless you God for keeping me alive and sustaining me all these years so that I could reach this great moment of insight.”
“Now look what you have done!” the man in rags exclaimed in frustration. “A new blessing!” And life flowed once again.
“Once upon a time…” – the power of a story. The Talmud teaches that each of us is commanded to recite 100 blessings a day. Imagine what your life would be like if you took that literally. If you spent every day making sure that you could fine 100 blessings to acknowledge. It would be as if every day of your life you were on a giant blessing treasure hunt. Imagine how that would change your day.
So perhaps we should look at this story as a Reconstructionist twist on that same Talmudic challenge. What would your life be like this year, this New Year that begins tonight, if you became like that “Officer of the Law” – if you became part of the “blessing police.” My challenge to each of you tonight, is not to commit to saying 100 blessings a day as the Talmud suggests, but rather to commit to 100 days of blessings.
Make a pledge, make a personal vow, make a New Year’s resolution tonight – that’s the real purpose of this sermon – for you to decide that for the next one hundred days, the next three months – just once in every day you will find something to bless in your life. Once every day for one hundred days. For if you take my New Year’s challenge, I can promise you with absolute certainty, that this simple story, and this simple act can change your life forever.
The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” The Greek philosopher Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all others.”
And the rabbis of the Midrash taught us, “For every breath one takes one should offer praise to the Holy One.” For every breath.
Even though I usually think “attitude is everything,” ultimately gratitude is more than an attitude, it’s a practice. Perhaps one of the simplest yet most profound forms of spiritual practice there is.
That’s why every single morning of my life I begin by offering three prayers – the first for the gift of waking up and being given a free new day; the second for the miracle of my body with all it’s millions of intricately connected cells and organs that automatically work everyday to keep me alive without having to consciously tell my heart “pump, pump, pump,” or my blood to flow in the right direction; and the third prayer is an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of my own soul and gratitude for the unique life that I have been given as a divine gift.
So tonight I recommend the same practice to you. You can pick your own prayers of gratitude to recite – in the morning when you get up or in the evening before you go to sleep or at any other regular time that will help you to remember to keep your spiritual discipline of gratitude every day. I do mine each morning in the shower.
Or you can use the new Kehillat Israel personal prayer cards that we have handed out tonight to help you take the step of beginning your own personal spiritual practice of gratitude every day. Do it and I guarantee it will have a profound effect on how you experience every day of your life.
I want to conclude with that wonderful story which you may remember about the teacher who asks her students to list what they thought were the present 7 Wonders of the World. The students cast the most votes for:
- Egypt’s Great Pyramids 2.Taj Mahal 3.Grand Canyon 4. Panama Canal 5.Empire State Building 6.St. Peter’s Basilica and 7. China’s Great Wall.
While gathering the votes the teacher noted that one student had not turned in her paper yet. She asked the little girl if she was having trouble with her list. “Yes, a little,” said the girl. “I couldn’t quite make up my mind because there were so many.”
The teacher said, “Well tell us what you have and maybe we can help.”
The girl hesitated, and then read, “I think the Seven Wonders of the World are: 1. to see 2. to hear 3. to touch 4. to taste 5. to feel 6. tolaugh 7. to love.”
There is a spiritual challenge in the Book of Deuteronomy that you have all heard many, many times. God turns to the Jewish people and declares, “See I set before you this day, life and death, good and evil, the blessing and the curse…” but what God didn’t tell them then, that I am telling you now, is that choosing the good, choosing the blessings, understanding the meaning of life itself can only be found when you live your life with an attitude and practice of gratitude.
For when you live life in gratitude every day, then you discover what the Officer of the Law eventually realized in the story – that the curse of blessings, was the greatest blessing of all.