“Bless God, Good and Beneficent”

Long ago, in the BC era – Before Covid – I wrote “Tefillah Tuesday” reflections which I hope helped deepen people’s experience of davvening our shared prayer book. But then some other stuff happened, so in March I stopped writing these weekly short essays.

I’d like to resume now, in the same spirit which has animated this project until now: what Heschel called “sympathetic prayer book exegesis,” helping to reveal the beauty, power and depth of Jewish worship. Last March, I was mid-way through the weekday Amidah’s 19 blessings. I’ll return there soon. But this week, another topic is on my mind: saying blessings upon receiving a Covid vaccine.

Maybe you’ve seen any number of newly composed vaccine prayers circulating on Jewish social media, many by my rabbinic colleagues across the heterodox denominations. Some are more eloquent than others, but I confess: these don’t get the job done for me. Under any circumstance, it’s really hard to write poetry that sings. The bar is even higher for writing liturgy – that is, poetry that other people, groups of them, can recite with full hearts.

I prefer to mine the rich resource of our inherited, shared practices and texts. Dating at least back to early Rabbinic times [2nd century CE] Jews have recited standard blessing formulas to express gratitude, worry and joy. Barukh Atah Adonay, Elohenu Melekh Ha’Olam. Blessed are You, Lord, Master of the Cosmos … These weighty, terse, incantatory phrases still deliver quite a shot in the arm that can enhance the experience of getting a shot in the arm.

What prayer should you say? Among Orthodox writers – both liberals, like my friends, the estimable Rabbis Ysoscher Katz and Dov Linzer, and not-so liberal authorities – the conversation has revolved around whether to recite שהחיינו/shehechiyanu, blessing God for enabling us to live to this special moment, הטוב והמטיב/ha’tov ve’ha’meitiv, blessing God who is good and beneficent, and/or הגומל/ha’gomel, blessing God for enabling one to survive a life-threatening situation. (Some more conservative authorities favor no blessing at all, or saying only a partial berakhah, omitting the divine name. They have their reasons. The Talmud also records a blessing to be said after bloodletting, an ancient medical practice, which concludes Barukh Atah … Rofeh Holim, “Blessed are You who heals the sick.” Berakhot 60a, Shulhan Arukh OH 230.4. This seems appropriate for almost any medical procedure, but – while it does appear in the books – this never became common practice.)

These erudite writers address technical points about the laws of blessings and what warrants each formula. My view aligns with Rabbi Linzer’s, in favor of הטוב והמטיב/ha’tov ve’ha’meitiv, although in this presentation I will be lighter on the legal details and focus more on the experiential and poetic dimension of saying the blessing.

First, to address Rabbi Katz’ alternative view, that with the advent of the vaccine, the proper blessing is הגומל/ha’gomel, in gratitude for surviving a mortal threat. I concur that if someone actually had Covid and recovered, this would be appropriate. Likewise if one were working in a hospital or nursing facility where Covid raged, and one came out safely. Once we’re all back together in synagogue maybe we will recite this blessing at the Torah, en masse. But I’m not prepared to recite it now, as the vaccine is just rolling-out, even if I myself receive it. People are still getting sick and dying! They still need to invoke a different Talmudic blessing [Ketubot 8b]: Barukh Atah Adonay, otzer hamagefa!/Blessed are You, who stops this plague! It seems to me both premature and in poor taste to bench gomel now when so many are still in the woods, not to mention, it violates the rabbinic maxim: Don’t open your mouth [i.e. provoke] Satan.

Instead, I favor one of the Talmud’s two expressions of gratitude for happy events, each instituted to express simhat halev/a joyful heart. In the words of the Mishna, Berakhot Ch. 9:

עַל הַגְּשָׁמִים וְעַל הַבְּשׂוֹרוֹת הַטּוֹבוֹת אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב… בָּנָה בַיִת חָדָשׁ, וְקָנָה כֵלִים חֲדָשִׁים, אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ שֶׁהֶחֱיָנו,

“Upon rains and good tidings, one should say Barukh Ata Adonayha’tov ve’ha’metiv/Who is Good and Beneficent … If one built a new house or bought new items, one should say Barukh Atah Adonay … Shehechiyanu, vekiyemany, vehiganua lazeman hazeh/Who kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this moment.”

These two gratitude blessings are very similar and the situations of glad-heartedness that call for each one overlap, As elaborated in the Talmud and later literature, the rule of thumb is that shehechiyanu expresses thanks for your individual good fortune, while ha’tov praises God for what helps you and others [Shulhan Arukh OH 222.1]. If it rains on your private field, say shehechiyanu. When a drought ends and it rains on all our fields, or perhaps on a cooperative farm we own together, then one should say ha’tov.

So which one is most appropriate for receiving a Covid vaccine? On the one hand, shehechiyanu is a phrase most people know and already associate with special moments in their lives. So, choosing this route is not bad by any means.

But I prefer ha’tov, for a few reasons. First, I don’t feel I have been through the pandemic ordeal by myself. We have been – are still going – through this public ordeal together. When the vaccine ends our shared suffering, it will be shared deliverance. The vaccine is not a private benefit accruing to each individual who receives it. For a public health crisis that threatened every person in every country on earth, say the blessing that our tradition associates with common weal, not private safety.

Secondly, the ha’tov blessing seems to me exactly what we need to say, as 2021 opens: “God is good, and is beneficent.” The world can be full of plague. Our loved ones might sicken and die. Our economies might tank. Our political cultures might warp. Perhaps, in these last 10 months, you’ve been close to despair.

Please step back from the edge. Homo Sapiens, created in the divine image, has done it again. What a piece of work we are! Studying, researching, experimenting, distributing, not to mention caring for each other along the way, we are poised, not merely to endure, but to prevail. Barukh HaShem, הטוב והמטיב, the Good and Beneficent, for guiding us on this path.

That’s what I will say when I get my shot – although it may be a while. Apparently 1.5 million Manhattanites, and 268.7 million Americans are already ahead of me in line.