Someone who has been safely delivered from a dangerous situation makes a special blessing in public, thanking G-d “Who bestows good on the culpable, Who has bestowed all goodness on me”. The mishna and thus the Shulchan Arukh give four examples: (1) one who returns safely from a perilous trip by sea; (2) or through a desert; (3) one cured of a dangerous illness; (4) one released from prison.
It is interesting to note that the wording of this blessing does not actually make any mention of salvation from danger. It merely thanks G-d for bestowing good on us. Furthermore, there is actually a bit of a riddle in making a blessing on such a situation. Someone who never became sick or imprisoned in the first place at all would seem to have a much greater reason to say a benediction!
Rav Kook suggests that the blessing is really thanking HaShem for all of His mercies which we enjoy all of the time. However, G-d’s blessings are so constant and manifold that it is easy to forget that there is something supernatural about His providence. It is exactly when an unusual situation arises that we become conscious of how thankful we should be for our normal state of existence.
Rav Kook explains the four different reasons for making a blessing as deviation from four different kinds of constraints which we are normally subject to. Following is an interpretation of Rav Kook’s explanation. Each of the four occasions for a blessing represents one kind of normal, yet occasionally frustrating, type of restriction to which we are normally subject.
1. A person may chafe at the restrictions dictated by his natural surroundings. Perhaps he will then long for the free, open expanses of the sea. But after he actually experiences a sea voyage, he becomes aware of how fitting and benign our normal surroundings really are.
2. A person may resent the restrictions imposed by society. He may then long to flee to the solitude of the desert. But after a period of time in the desert, he will realize how dependent he really is on the community and its conventions.
3. A person may be impatient with the limitations of his own body. Possibly he thinks it would be convenient if he could go a period of days without eating, or without going to the bathroom, and so on. Again, after a period of time during which he is involuntarily “freed” from these natural restrictions, he becomes aware that these supposed shackles of bodily existence are actually natural and beneficial for the human soul.
4. A person may be frustrated by the constraints of morality. Ethical restrictions may seem petty and annoying obstacles to great achievement. Being imprisoned for a moral infraction reminds him that “freedom” from morality ultimately leads to complete bondage. If all are free to do as they please, ultimately all are imprisoned in an environment of fear and chaos.
So ultimately “hagomel” is the blessing of contrasts. It is only through “liberation” from our everyday constraints and surroundings that we realize that these constraints are not oppressing but rather enlivening. Exactly when we have left our normal routine and then returned to it, we can truly express our gratitude to HaShem Who bestows all goodness on us on an ongoing basis. SOURCE: Olat Reiyah I 309-312.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.