Angel practice

“You don’t get good at blessing overnight,” our rabbi tells the congregation. So that was our homework.

Andreas Teich/Newscom
Stonework in the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin depicts the hand position of a Jewish priest giving a traditional blessing.

Our rabbi asks us about our homework assignment. “When was the last time you blessed someone?”

No one in the congregation raises a hand. 

“Let’s practice,” he says. “Turn to the person next to you. Look into their eyes, and open yourself to being a messenger for the blessing that person needs. Begin by saying, ‘I want to bless you.’” The exercise makes us squirm. Aren’t blessings what we ask of God? 

My good friend pivots to face me. I am already deliberating about a blessing for her. She’s worried about her son, a college student far away. It occurs to me that I might be describing the very blessing that I most need.

Our blessings are stiff and rehearsed. “Keep practicing,” our rabbi says. “You don’t get good overnight.”

Then we sing of the angels who trail us home on the Jewish Sabbath. As I head out into the cold night, I imagine I hear the whisper of angels’ wings. I picture angels pinching my coattails, sweeping with a gust into my home. I wonder how I might keep them here, a presence I might always feel.

The next week, my daughter and I get into a conversation with an Uber driver about his work in his church. He asks about my job and my daughter’s advanced studies. Then, to our surprise, he asks permission to pray for us. 

“Now,” I tell him. “I’d like to pray for you.” I begin in the traditional Jewish way, acknowledging God and the blessings in my life before I offer a prayer on the driver’s behalf. I pray that this man will continue to serve families who need his help. I pray that his own family will be healthy, their lives full of joy.

“Amen!” he calls out.

That was a year ago. I wonder if he is still employed, if his family is healthy. How could I have possibly known what he needed? We were strangers.

Here’s what I am learning about blessing: You have to somehow gauge whether a person will be OK with the intimate moment they haven’t exactly asked for. I have walked away from more than a few people feeling the blessing didn’t go so hot. It’s definitely easier to bless someone whose injury is obvious, a cast or crutches: “I want to bless you with a swift and complete recovery.” This is generally well received. And it sounds more sincere than “Get better soon.” I feel that a blessing should overwhelm me, like those rare moments when, caught up in inspiration, I furiously scribble the words that come to me as though I’m taking dictation. 

Today, I’m in the grocery store. My husband is recovering from surgery. A child is still anguished. I choose flowers for myself: pink roses, the petals edged in green, like a prematurely picked fruit.

I hurry through the checkout line and head to the cafe counter. A man with a long ponytail takes a big step back when I zoom up with my packed cart.

He waves me ahead. “You go first. I have all the time in the world.”

Before ordering I ask him what he’s having, and I pay for his drink. I thank him for his kindness.

He shrugs. “Just basic courtesy. Easy stuff.” There is something of the free spirit in his mellow demeanor, his groovy ponytail. “What’s your name?” he asks.

“Claudia.”

“Pleasure to meet you. I’m Angel.”

“Angel? That’s a beautiful name.”

“As is Claudia.”

Then, without thinking, I say, “May you be an angel to everyone around you.” He closes his eyes and nods slowly. Did I just make him sad?  

“I try,” he says. “I try.”

“And …” I hear my voice crack. “May you find yourself surrounded by angels.” 

An ache rises from my chest to my throat. Do I tell him I have been waiting for an angel? That some of my people are hurting, and I can’t take their pain away?

“Thank you,” he says, accepting the mocha from the barista. Angel turns back to me. “You have a grateful day now.” And he walks away.

A grateful day. 

Maybe it wasn’t a blessing in return. Just a goodbye. He is still sauntering away. He did say he had all the time in the world. His pant leg drags on the ground, trampled by his heel and crusted with snow. 

Grateful. My husband is safely out of surgery. But a child is in pain. My love does not feel like anything close to enough. But my child is loved, and I am loved. Wildly, wildly loved.

A petal slips free in my hand, the pink sunrise of the rose splattered by the foam of my latte. The petal is drenched, but silky and too lovely to dump in the garbage. I cup the petal in my hand, hold it high above the slosh of melted snow as I bump my shopping cart through the parking lot. In my hands, the sun rises on a new day.

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