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Bittersweet Shehekheyanu: A Revised Blessing for Gratitude and Loss

I needed a way to spiritually acknowledge and accept these transitional moments which are a mixed blessing.

The Shehekheyanu prayer has been my favorite for over 40 years; I’m always seeking opportunities to say it as an expression of gratitude and appreciation. It always accompanies my wearing new clothes or jewelry, trying a new food, hearing great news from a friend, getting married (at age 50!), the birth of a new baby, the first rains after a drought, attending a new class, seeing a friend after a long time.

When my godson turned three years old, I began planting strawberries and tomatoes, so we could say the Shehekheyanu together after each first harvest. We both excitedly looked forward to that first taste each spring and summer well into his teenage years.

Last fall I was confronted with a situation where my initial response was to say “Shehekheyanu,” yet I couldn’t quite get all the words out of my mouth. In July 2018, I was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative and terminal muscle-wasting disease; the news was devastating. My partner and I went for a trip to Italy several months after the diagnosis, to heal and have some quiet time together. It was a wonderful 18 days, beautiful walks in the mountains, participating in the final days of the grape harvest, eating delicious food – it was sacred time and space. When we arrived at the airport to return home, we learned that the departure gate was about a mile away. At that point, my body was exhausted and we didn’t have the time needed for me to walk that far. The airlines offered a wheelchair and an assistant, and we gratefully accepted. I appreciated that the wheelchair existed and was available to get me where I needed to go, but it was a painful reminder of what my body could no longer do. Feeling grateful, but not celebratory or blessed, I just couldn’t say the Shehekheyanu in that moment, even though it was clearly a moment that needed a sacred response.

Since then, there have been other wonderful technological solutions that have enabled me to live a pretty full life while I live with this disease (a rollator which allows me to keep hiking and has a seat for me when I need to take a break, a battery-powered stair lift that transports me up and down between our first and second floors, gadgets so I can button and zip my clothes). I can no longer easily hold a pen and write, but it’s wonderful that there is a gadget I can use that holds my fingers together to allow me to continue, until, ultimately, there will be sufficient muscle loss that no gadget can fix.

For each of these situations, I was deeply appreciative that these devices existed, that I had the financial means to purchase them, and that they eased my way, but I still couldn’t quite utter Shehekheyanu when I first used them.

In thinking about this, I realized that the Shehekheyanu prayer represents, for me, an experience of celebration, joy, excitement, and looking forward to new beginnings. Dealing with ALS is a continual process of loss, adjusting, adapting, and making peace with diminished abilities – it’s hard to truly celebrate that reality. I want to stay mindful and grateful when I find ways of adapting to new limitations, but it’s always balanced with the realization of loss and grief.

I imagine that there are other times when people may be facing, and want or need to liturgically acknowledge a new, yet imperfect situation:

  • Receiving a first unemployment check, accepting that one is out of a job and steady paycheck, and grateful that there will be some money to cover financial needs;
  • Starting chemotherapy or other drug regimen, acknowledging that one has a serious medical condition, and grateful that there is a treatment that may provide a cure;
  • Being fitted with a prosthetic limb, acknowledging the physical body loss, and grateful that some functionality will be possible;
  • Entering hospice, acknowledging that one is entering the final stage of life, and grateful that there are people and organizations that provide a loving and caring environment.

I needed a way to spiritually acknowledge and accept these transitional moments which are a mixed blessing. The first two parts of the Shehekheyanu (“Shehekheyanu v’kimanu”/”Who has kept us alive, sustained us”), still deeply resonate for me. Facing a terminal diagnosis, these words are even more powerful for me today; I am so deeply grateful for each day of life, each birdsong, each new flower blooming, each loving hug, and am trying to squeeze as much life out of each day as I can.

I’ve been playing with adapting the third part of the Shehekheyanu prayer (“v’higiyanu lazman hazeh”/”Who has brought us to this moment”), with a few variations so I can continue my Shehekheyanu practice wholeheartedly moving forward. I’ve kept the plural format of the original Shehekheyanu. The original blessing reads: Barukh Atah Adonay Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam shehekheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.

Below are variation options for the last three words:
Who has eased our way – v’hinikhanu (literally means “Who has guided me to an easier place”)
Who has provided support – u’t’mikhanu
Who reminds us that we’re not alone – v’holekh imanu (from Deut. 31:6)
Who dwells with us – v’shokhen imanu ba’zman ha-zeh
Who has not abandoned us – she-lo azavanu
Who has comforted us – v’nikhamanu

With hope that this provides consolation to others accepting difficult transitions.

With deep appreciation to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein and Baruch Sienna for their support and help with the Hebrew translations.

Ilana Schatz is the Founding Director of Fair Trade Judaica, a nonprofit focused on building a fair trade movement in the Jewish community. She has been active in Jewish social justice for over 30 years, focusing on community economic development, affordable housing, homelessness and community investing. Ilana was a lay spiritual leader at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland, CA, for 15 years.

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