Asking and receiving: A personal story
by Jacques Abourbih
On Erev Rosh Hashanah Zahava and Scott invited Karen and me to celebrate the holiday Kiddush and meal with their family-Sydney, Yehuda and Ben. Sharing that first night with us was also Daniel Benzimra, a freshman at Laurentian University, who attends Shabbat morning services and studies Talmud with Scott and me.
What I cannot reproduce for you here is the wonderful aromas of freshly baked Challah and the food that greeted us as we came in from Shul. You will just have to use your imagination. The table was royally set in honor of the Moed. Yehuda had made little platter decorations for each one of us. The centerpiece at the table was of course the traditional head of fish. Karen had cooked the head of a salmon. I remember looking at those lifeless eyes and the half-opened mouth of the salmon thinking, “You put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig. How could this ugly thing symbolize everything good I hope for this coming New Year?”
Kiddush was beautiful. We made Ha-Motsi on the freshly baked Challah that Scott dipped in honey for each of us. Zahava had prepared a delicious, several-course dinner. The conversation at the table was very animated.
At the end of the evening, I was offered the mitzvah of leading Birkat Hamazon. I am afraid I did a terrible job at it. Unfortunately, I had been fading away very rapidly during dinner. I was exhausted from teaching all that afternoon. The pain in my left ankle that was to keep me away from Shul the next morning on the first day of Rosh Hashanah was beginning to set in.
I caught myself making many mistakes while reading the Birkat. One of them that I hope I avoided is in the final words of the invitational Zimun acknowledging the Almighty’s goodness in granting sustenance.
Let me show you the immense difference a single letter in the wording makes. The specific word is “u’vetuvo” [through his goodness]. It is so easy to insert inadvertently, while reading quickly or inattentively the text, the letter Mem and pronounce that word as “u’mituvo”. This transforms the meaning entirely to imply ‘and from His goodness [u’mituvo] we live’.
What is the difference between the two phrases: “through His goodness we live” as opposed to “from His goodness we live”? The difference according to the Talmud is immense. The Soncino edition translates the Talmudic passage as follows:
“And from the way a man says the blessings it may be recognized whether he is a scholar or an ignorant person” (T.B. Berachot 50a). The Talmudic passage continues: “Rabbi Yochanan says: [If the one reciting the zimun says] ‘Blessed is the One, of whose bounty we have eaten and through His goodness [u’vetuvo] we live’ – this is an indication of wisdom. [If an ever so slightly different wording] concludes the statement – ‘and from His bounty [u’mituvo] we live’ – this is a sign of an ignoramus.”
The difference is that the ignorant man asks, begs, and demands of G-d as his wording implies, “From the goodness we asked of G-d, we live”. Compare this to the uttering of the scholar who says, “Through all the bounty He bestows on us, whether we deserve it or not, we live.”
At this time of the year when we ask, beg and request mercy and forgiveness, perhaps we should be less assuming in our demands and be more modest in our requests — things we actually deserve.