I would like to dedicate this shiur in honor of the miraculous recovery of my brother-in-law, Yehuda Glick, who has recently been released from the hospital after having been shot at point blank range by a terrorist. There is every reason to believe that God is sending him, his family and indeed all of Am Yisrael a message through his recovery, as there was not much reason to believe that he would have survived such an attack.
(For anyone who is not familiar with the background, a simple Google search will give you all of the facts. Yehuda is a major, if not the major, activist for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. This is a complicated topic deserving of its own shiur.)
In his press conference upon leaving the hospital he opened by reciting a bracha, “mechaye hametim”, http://www.inn.co.il/News/News.aspx/287951. He explained that the Midrash writes that, upon leaving Har Hamoria, Yitzchak made this bracha in a very understandable expression of his appreciation of still being alive. (The obvious connection between the bracha and location of its source made it even more significant for Yehuda to say the bracha.)
After doing some research, I found that there are actually two different versions of the Midrash. The one quoted by Yehuda has Yitzchak making the bracha, while the other version of the story has the angels making the bracha as observers of the incredible scene that they had just witnessed. I would like to argue that this second version seems more likely.
We find the bracha of “mechaye hametim” in the second unit of the Amida. It is the summary of the bracha dealing with the great and wondrous powers of God. As such, the ability to resurrect the dead is clearly the trump card of them all. This has echoes in the opening lines of Mesechet Taanit where we are taught that there are certain things (“keys”) that God does not place in anyone’s authority. One of these is the key to life. The Gemara is generally read as referring to the onset of life, the forming of the fetus, however it should be obvious that this is equally as true in the daily sustaining of life in regular times and all the more so in circumstances that mere statistics would dictate a lack of chance to live.
We also find the bracha in a very different context. The Gemara in Brachot teaches that if one sees a long lost friend, after at least a twelve month separation, one should make the same bracha. (Many of the poskim assume that the halacha only applies if you had no communication with them at all in the time period and possibly even did not hear anything about them either. If one had heard from them or even heard about them, one would not make such a bracha.) In a subjective manner, the friend has been “resurrected”. In this context the bracha has nothing to do with the objective reality of life and death, as your friend most likely was doing just fine relaxing on a sandy beach in some warm location, or doing whatever else they were doing. The bracha expresses one’s subjective joy in having rediscovered the individual.
There does not seem to be any source for an individual who has experienced a life threatening/saving experience to make such a bracha. In a recent incident, one of the leading Charedi rabbis, Rav Eidelstein, had a remarkable recovery and when he was visited by the Rosh Hayeshiva of the Ponivitz Yeshiva, Rav Povorosky, the visiting rabbi, asked – should he make a bracha of shehechiyanu in gratitude or should he recite mechaye hamatim. The recovering rabbi responded that in such a case mechaye hametim is the better choice given the incredible circumstances surrounding his recovery. (See http://www.bhol.co.il/article.aspx?id=19807.) While this sounds similar to Yehuda’s situation, in reality it is very different. The one making the bracha was the visitor and not the one recovering. In other words, it is parallel to the angels having made the bracha in the case of the Akeida and not Yitzchak.
There is a bracha to be said by the individual themselves, and this is “birkat Hagomel”. The Gemara in the last chapter of Brachot tells us that four individuals need to make this bracha:
§ A person who was sick and was cured
§ A person who traversed a desert safely
§ A person who successfully made a naval journey
§ A person released from prison
The simple reading of the Gemara is that these activities all involve (or involved) significant levels of danger and getting through them unscathed obligated one in the bracha.
In addition, there is another bracha that one must make if one sees the location of the miraculous event. “He who sees the places that miracles were performed for our ancestors must say ‘Blessed…who has performed miracles for my ancestors in this place’”. The Gemara includes in this obligation not only national-communal miracles but also individual ones. (The exact formula of the bracha will change to meet the circumstances).
The Midrash tells us that when Yosef returned from burying Yaakov he made a detour to go back and visit the site of the pit that he was cast into. He looked inside and recited the bracha “she’asa li ness bamakom hazeh”. (The Midrash is trying to explain why the brothers suddenly became apprehensive upon the return from the burial. One of the explanations offered is that they saw him returning to the site of the crime and they assumed that in addition to thanking God that he would, as well, take revenge.)
What is the difference between the brachot? Why do we need Hagomel and “she’asa li neis bamakom hazeh” if we already have a bracha that expresses a similar idea?
The answer lies in the formulation of the bracha. The bracha of mechaye hametim is phrased in the general pattern of most of our brachot that describe a quality of God. God is the “shield of Avraham”, the “reviver of the dead”, “the holy God”, “the One who grants wisdom”, “the creator of fruit”, etc. In each and every one we mark the relevant quality of God’s greatness and kindness. The obligation to bless and recognize God extends to all aspects of our lives, from what we eat to how we behave and even to how we react to the natural world around us. We cannot simply hear thunder; instead we immediately translate our natural shock and awe into a bracha -“His power and strength fill the world”.
The two brachot that are obligatory to the actual subject of the miracle (Hagomel and sh’asa li ness) are very different. In both of these brachot we speak in the first person. In Hagomel we say He has granted ME all good, and of course the formula of the second bracha is focused on having performed a miracle “for me” in this place. It is not simply recognition of the great majestic and omnipotent powers of God, rather it is a personal thank you to God. The bracha of Hagomel is to be said once upon returning to regular functioning, and the other bracha is to be recited on any occasion that one is reminded of the great event triggered by returning to the site (assuming at least 30 days have passed since the last time you were there). To use the terminology of the Ramabm, these brachot are described as “Praise and Thanks”. I think, however, that there is a vast difference between them, between praise (mechaye hamaetim) and thanks (hagomel and sh’asa li ness).
For those of us who stood in the hospital corridors, for all of those that prayed incessantly, for all who followed every drop of updated information on the status of the sick or injured, the relevant bracha is mechaya hametim. For the individual themselves this is not enough; it is not enough to recognize that God has the ability to do miracles. In addition one must turn to God in the most intimate manner and in first person stand up and say, “I am that miracle and it happened here!”.
This aspect of the first person thanking of God seems to be stressed in what is probably the most relevant perek of Tehilim in general and specifically in the case of my dear brother-in-law:
Psalms Chapter 116 תְּהִלִּים
I thank the students, the staff and the many bogrot (some from many, many years ago) who have been in contact to express their concern and support of my family during this time. May we all be able to answer amen to Yehuda’s birkat Hagomel on Har Habayit.