2016-06-30
Adapted from an article that first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Used here with permission of the author.

Rivka Danzig teaches graduate students at Penn. She has a thriving psychotherapy practice. She has been known to search the world over for a way out of a medical quagmire. The 47-year-old Ph.D. from Wynnewood knows how to operate in this world. But though she has no trouble making her own voice heard, some of her most important speeches make use of the words of others.

When she gets up or goes to bed, when she starts a meal and ends it, when she sees a rainbow, reunites with a long-lost friend, even goes to the bathroom, Danzig recites the prescribed Jewish blessing, or berakhah. The blessings are taken from the Talmudic Berakhot, considered to be the most useful of the ancient rabbis' writings on prayer.

There are blessings for food, drink, and other things that are enjoyed; for good health and other causes to thank and praise; and for required religious activities.

"Everything we do is preceded by, and often ended by, prayers," said Danzig, a lifelong Orthodox Jew. There are blessings for food, drink, and other things that are enjoyed; for good health and other causes to thank and praise; and for required religious activities such as the lighting of the Sabbath candles. At times, the blessings are hugely practical, said Danzig, the mother of three. When hearing thunder, for instance, she prays, "Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, for His strength and His power fill the world."


"Isn't that better than [telling a fearful child], 'God is bowling'?"

Danzig recites her berakhot aloud, but quietly, in Hebrew. If someone overhears the entire prayer of another, he may respond "amen." In so doing, he fulfills his own requirement for the prayer.

The heart is to be directed to heaven, the mind fixed on God.

The ancient rabbis dictated that the blessings not be made by rote but with kavana--"with a full heart and with full intention," explained Danzig. The heart is to be directed to heaven, the mind fixed on God.

Danzig said she agreed with the ancient rabbis' belief that individuals should not be the ones who decide when or whether to pray: "Let's say you're not in the mood. Well, whether you're in the mood or not, this is what you need to do." Of what motivates her, she said simply, "After 47 years, either you buy into this or not."

The blessings are not just for the Orthodox but "are relatively commonly made" by Jews of all traditions who seek to "be engaging of God" in everyday life, said Rabbi Saul Berman, who teaches at Stern College of Yeshiva University and Columbia University School of Law. He said the better-known berakhot are said so often, they are committed to memory, while the more obscure ones can be looked up in the Jewish prayerbook, called the Siddur.

How they are handled in public depends on the situation, Rabbi Berman said. If people nearby would understand them and join in, they'd likely be said out loud. Not so among strangers, where the prayer would be said in an undertone that could go unnoticed.

For Danzig, the berakhot are just part of what she called "a 24-hour religion."

She and her family dress modestly. She keeps her head covered, except when alone or with her husband. They use no phone, TV, car, electricity, or pagers on the Sabbath, and do not work on the Sabbath or on holidays. She follows the Jewish dietary laws and keeps a kosher kitchen. "I never ate a McDonald's hamburger," she said.

The goal is God-awareness throughout life, and the blessings foster that.

"The goal is God-awareness throughout life," and the blessings foster that, she said. "They transform the mundane and the commonplace--eating and drinking--into the more spiritual."

Danzig doesn't use only the words of her ancestors when she prays; she also improvises.

"I always talk to God," she said. "I believe very much in intercessory prayer."

She prays in her own words and believes that God hears and responds.

She believes that her 13-year-old daughter, who developed cancer at age 5, is alive today because of the outpouring of such prayer, not just her own but that of family, friends, and the Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Overbrook Park, Penn., where the Danzigs are members.

Especially on the Sabbath, Danzig tries to make 100 blessings a day, as Jewish tradition recommends. She has said millions of the berakhot over the years.

Although the words are always the same, the events that elicit them can be unforgettable.

Such was the case the day before her older son became bar mitzvah. Anticipation high and plans ready, Danzig got a sudden phone call saying that her mother had been killed in a car accident en route to Pennsylvania for the event.

"Blessed art Thou God, true judge," she said immediately in Hebrew.

Her religion dictated that those words be said upon hearing of tragedy. But this was not a knee-jerk exclamation of shock.

"It's not an 'Oh my God' kind of thing," she said. It was an acknowledgment "that God is running the show," a time-honored affirmation of belief and resolve, at once a proclamation of faith and a fresh discovery of it.

The integrity of the words carried her. "That's why I'm convinced that the rabbis and sages really laid out the formulas for the benedictions and we're not supposed to change them," she said.

The next day, the now-inappropriate synagogue celebration canceled, the congregation put together a makeshift sanctuary in the family's home, and the boy made his rite of passage quietly, at a suddenly bittersweet service.

"It was the most schizophrenic thing," she recalled. "I had no idea what God had in mind there. It's one thing to celebrate rainbows," she said, quite another to declare God in control of tragedy.

Things were different, though, when her daughter's turn came. That the girl would even live to become bat mitzvah had seemed impossible seven years earlier, when she was thought unlikely to survive a brain tumor. So this time, the clan celebrated with abandon. The revelers choked back tears of happiness.

The mother--who knew well that God was the judge--now prayed the standard berakhah for joy: "Blessed is God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this point." The guests, hearing the praise, cried "amen."

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