“How are you?”
Barukh Hashem (בָּרוּךְ הַשֵּׁם) is the quintessential Jewish way to say, “Thank God.” It is a way to express appreciation for what we have and what we are experiencing in the moment.
Some people punctuate their gratitude-filled days with this expression. “Barukh HaShem, they got out of the hospital earlier than expected.” “I thought I was going to be late for the job interview, but, Barukh HaShem, I didn’t hit a single red light.”
The Joys and the oys
Yet no matter how many times I hear this phrase, I still can’t believe that it can mean so many different things. People say “Barukh HaShem,” and convey the feeling of: “Don’t even ask. My enemies should have my troubles!” Or with a dubious tone it conveys, “I am not so sure everything will be ok.”
But where did this expression come from?
Barukh HaShem x 4
Barukh HaShem is mentioned four times in the Torah. Noah, awakens from a wine-induced sleep and discovers that his sons spared him losing his own dignity in his drunkenness. He gratefully utters the blessing, “Barukh HaShem” (Genesis 9:26).
Fast forward to the story of Abraham, the first Jew. He asked his trusty Canaanite servant Eliezer to find the perfect wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. When Rebecca agrees to allow Eliezer to lodge with her family on his sacred errand, Eliezer says “Barukh HaShem.” (Gen. 24:27).
Further on in the family drama, Isaac is offered a peace treaty by King Abimelekh, who responds with, “Barukh HaShem.” (Gen. 26:29).
The Midianite priest Jethro learns about the miracle of how God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and exclaims, “Barukh HaShem.” (Exodus18:10).
Members of the Tribe?
Noah, Eliezer, Abimelekh and Jethro – all Biblical characters who were not even Israelites! When they bless God, they do so from a sense that everything they enjoyed was because of a power greater than themselves. They are true role models for us to express gratitude in our everyday lives.
The ‘Name?’ Whose name?
But here is the thing: Barukh HaShem doesn’t literally mean “thank God;” it means “Blessed is the ‘Name,’ as in God’s Name. If we want to express gratitude to the Divine, are these the words we would use?
In Jewish tradition, there is awe for God’s proper name, spelled with the Hebrew letters yud, hay, vav, hay. But without knowing the vowels that accompany those letters, Jews thought it was better to substitute “the Name” instead of messing up the exact pronunciation of God’s name. That’s how this expression seeped into the Jewish vocabulary of gratitude.
The good we see
The expression is a gut-level response to the good we see in our lives, or even the good we hope for in our lives. And that is something worth striving for. Can we exude that kind of thankfulness the way that Noah, Eliezer, Abimelekh and Jethro did? If not, what holds us back?
Maybe we feel that frequent expressions of gratitude can be not very Jewish. Maybe we think that only Orthodox Jews use this expression. Maybe we get stuck on the theology implied by the word “blessed,” because we don’t believe in God, the traditional ‘blesser.’ If we attribute everything good to a higher spiritual
power, what happens to our own sense of personal agency?
The Torah weighs in
When you have built fine houses to live in and everything you own has prospered, watch out – your heart may grow overly confident. You may forget that God freed you from the house of bondage – lest you say, “My own power and might have won this wealth for me.” (Deuteronomy. 8:11-14, 17)
Walk the talk
The Torah tells us that there is a pretty good chance we can get a little cocky. And gratitude is one protector against that kind of cockiness. Saying “Barukh HaShem” does not have to mean abandoning our own sense of personal agency. But acknowledging a higher power in our lives is a very Jewish way to walk the talk of gratitude. When we encounter goodness in our lives, we can remain humble and not to take it for granted.
Gratitude is good for us. Gratitude is Judaism in its fullest expression.
And, even said in its wryest tone, “Barukh HaShem,” can help us realize that things could often be worse and indeed, we do have so much to be thankful for.