Love it or hate it, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most widely known treatments of Orthodox Judaism in American popular culture. The Broadway musical and the film it inspired have both enjoyed enduring popularity.
During one iconic scene, the rabbi is asked if there is an appropriate blessing for Motel’s new sewing machine. The rabbi responds, “There’s a blessing for everything.”
Indeed, a student of Judaism will quickly find that there seems to be a prescribed blessing (Heb. berachah) for every occasion—getting up in the morning, going to sleep at night, eating, drinking, and even using the bathroom. Every experience life has to offer, from the mundane to the extraordinary, is ensconced in specific and verbally spoken blessings by the traditional Jew.
The Christian response to this Jewish practice is varied. Some Christians see the laws of blessings as an unnecessarily complex set of obligations; the standard formula, Baruch atta HaShem, eloheinu melech ha’olam (Blessed are You, O LORD our God, King of the universe), reminds many evangelical Protestants of the seemingly foreign and long-vilified system of Catholic liturgy. Others, though, find mirrored a significant element of our own praxis—what Brother Lawrence called “practicing the presence of God,” an idea that has (thankfully) found its way into Protestantism, and which represents a deliberate and conscious awareness of God in every situation.
I am among the latter. I see the blessings of Judaism as an opportunity to remember and honor God in every circumstance.
On Wednesday, February 17, I had many opportunities to bless God. I woke up. I ate. I drank. The weather was beautiful. For all this I can be thankful.
Unfortunately, though, I was compelled to say another blessing, one I haven’t had to say in a long time: Baruch dayan emet.
This blessing, which translates as “Blessed is the true Judge,” is said upon receiving exceptionally bad news; it is generally reserved for when one hears of the death of a close friend or family member. I said it on Wednesday because on that day, my brother-in-law, Seth Zeiler, passed away after a sudden and unexpected heart attack less than twenty-four hours earlier.
Seth was thirty-nine years old. He was a good man. He was a bird of rare feather—an honest mechanic—and owing to his reputation as a man of character, integrity, and self-sacrifice, he was widely respected and loved in his community. He was a Catholic in good standing and selflessly devoted himself to the parish.
Seth married my wife’s best friend a little more than two years ago. As I write this, she is in labor with their first, and now only, child. Charles Alex Zeiler will be named for Seth’s father, who passed away ten years ago under similar and equally sudden circumstances.
Little Charles will never know his father in this life. The love his community has for Seth will undoubtedly descend on him; he will be taken care of. But a great sadness remains. Seth’s mother has now lost both her husband and her son; my wife has now lost both her father and her only sibling; Seth’s wife has lost her husband just two days before the birth of their child.
The appropriate and adaptive human response to death is to grieve. The reasoning of philosophers and theologians about the greater good, an absolute belief in a future resurrection of the dead, a firm conviction that the deceased is in a better place—these provide limited consolation to the widow, the sonless mother, the bereaved sister, the fatherless child. Instead, we cry out; we rail; we question the Divine. How is this fair? Where is God’s goodness? Where is God’s justice? How can God defend the death of a good man in the prime of his life?
To these questions, in the midst of mourning, the traditional Jew says “Baruch dayan emet.” Blessed is the true Judge.
This short phrase is a way of acknowledging that God, despite our complaints, is within his rights both to give life and to take it. He may decide who lives, and who dies; his reasons are his own.
This statement leaves plenty of room for later philosophizing and theologizing; likewise it does nothing to curtail our hope in the resurrection. Yet Judaism is nothing if not down-to-earth. In the moment of greatest distress, the traditional Jew says—God is the true Judge. In the face of helplessness, blinded by grief, he says—God is the true Judge. His faith may waver; doubt lies at the door; still he says—God is the true Judge.
For there is nothing else to say at that moment. There is no goodness, no justice, no mercy, no happiness in death. There is nothing in death itself for which we may feel compelled to bless God. Buddha saw death as a new beginning; Bushido teaches that death is an awakening from the dream of life; on the contrary, the Bible teaches us that death is the enemy, and experience concurs.
Yet God is the true Judge.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). For God is over all and in all, and in him we live—and in him we die.
We do not choose to be born, and most of us do not choose to die. From birth to death, we are in the palm of God’s hand. The death of our loved ones reminds us, as nothing else can, that we exist at the discretion of the true Judge.
For me, for now, that will have to be enough.