Stop and Smell the Rosemary

The Practice of Blessing Makes Life a Little Sweeter

Rabbi Meir taught, one should attempt to say 100 blessings a day, each day (Talmud Menachot 43b). These blessings range from affirmations of ritual behavior (lighting Shabbat candles or putting on tefilin) to those embedded within traditional thrice-daily prayer services to expressing gratitude for learning or the food we eat.  This last type, birchot hanehenin, blessings of enjoyment, extends to those things that bring pleasure or awe to other senses too: the sight of a beautiful sunset, the sound of crackling thunder or the fragrant scent of wild herbs.

Each summer for four summers, I get to spend meaningful time learning in Jerusalem as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.  This July, I had a flat in West Jerusalem’s German Colony.  Most mornings, before hours upon hours spent pouring over rabbinic and biblical sources or listening to (terrific but lengthy) lectures, I would go jogging on a rail-trail.  The Rakevet, originally tracks for the Ottoman-era steam locomotive train, winds its way through the Jerusalem hills from the original train station, past the basketball and soccer stadiums, to the Malcha Mall.  For years this now verdant pathway was simply a run-down anachronism, oxidized rail beds guarded by a chain link fence that divided the German Colony from Baka to the East.

Rosemary on Burg's back deck

As a habit during my run along the now-manicured lawns surrounding the repurposed trail, I would pause for just a moment each morning along-side one of the ubiquitous rosemary bushes that adorn the path (and much of Jerusalem).  Reaching down to rub the herb between my thumb and forefingers, transferring the intoxicating scent to my own body, I would raise from hand to my nose, recite the requisite blessing and inhale deeply – Blessed are you YHVH, Master of the Universe, who creates fragrant spices (atzei b’samim).  This notion of reciting 100 blessings a day.  Why?  It’s about cultivating an attitude of gratitude; making regular practice of thanksgiving elevates our sense of wonder at the miracle of life (and also has the inverse effect of mitigating cynicism).

Back in Baltimore, weather permitting, I continue to bike or run outdoors from my Reservoir Hill home many mornings. I run through Druid Hill Park and its surrounding neighborhoods.  I encounter fellow Baltimoreans jogging, grabbing the paper, walking their dogs, greeting the day and one another.  I run past tenderly cultivated flowering pots and herb-laden gardens.  Sometimes I stop and smell the rosemary – and when I do I say a blessing.  With over 300 murders a year in Baltimore city, with (understandable) anxiety about politics, endemic poverty, racism and more, intentionally peppering our days with blessing liberates us from cynicism and self-pity.

When my family and I first moved to Baltimore, we rented a house on Druid Park Lake Drive, next to a series of vacant and crumbling row homes.  One day, my son Shamir (age 3 or 4 at the time) and I were standing on our minuscule back deck overlooking a shambolic alley scene.  A smile spreading on his lips, he gestured exuberantly toward the house next door and said, “Look Abba, flowers!”  I strained to see what he saw and finally I noticed: amid a pile of bricks and broken glass, a few yellow dandelions strained toward the sunlight.  I saw rubble.  Shamir saw flowers.

The city is flowering in myriad ways whether we notice it or not.  Those who notice, blossom too.  Those who take it for granted or, worse, don’t bother to absorb the sights sounds and smells of that flourishing, “they soon wither like grass” (Psalms 37:2).  These days, we have a nicer back deck.  And of course we planted some rosemary.

A version of this piece will appear in the December issue of JMORE.