I’m sure there are those of you reading this blog who feel quite lucky in your choice of occupation. But I am equally certain that you could not be more blessed in your professional life than I have been. And I’m not referring to job satisfaction; I mean literally blessed. I have given so many after-luncheon and after-dinner speeches that the invocation before meals has become an integral part of my career as lecturer.
I find the custom of asking a blessing on the food most gratifying. There is something about closing one’s eyes and bowing the head in unison with fellow diners that is unifying for the group and to the spirit. I do admit to those infrequent occasions when the little boy in me asserts himself, and I peek with one eye at the others, just to make sure that this audience is not as immature in this respect as I am. I have never caught anyone peeking back. And when I see the crowd so solemn and seemingly comatose, I give a quick silent prayer myself that my upcoming speech will not cause these good people to return to this somnolent posture.
Since the person who gives the invocation is usually the first to use the microphone, he or she provides the invaluable service of testing the audio system before I have to use it. Moreover, when the audience falls silent for the first time, it often becomes apparent that there is background Muzak which needs to be turned off immediately. I always feel sorry for the unfortunate prayer-giver who must compete with that unexpected musical accompaniment. Many years ago in California, one invoker prayed that their community be delivered from the never ending storms of El Niño. As he spoke, the waiters were frantically trying to disconnect the other sound system which was merrily piping out Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.
Over the years I have heard all sorts of invocations (the best, as you would imagine, are usually the most concise) but I remember being taken aback the first time the speaker asked God to bless me and my upcoming lecture. Talk about performance anxiety. Here the name of the Almighty himself had been invoked to help insure my professional success.
“Bless Dr. Engel with wisdom, O Lord,” one honey-voiced club president intoned, “so that he shall fill our ears with righteous lessons and moral learning.” Given the fact that my speech for the evening was entitled: Our Slippery Mother Tongue: A Humorous History of the English Language (which is still one of my bestsellers, thank the Lord) I somehow felt expectations were being raised that I would not be meeting. At least I did have the consolation that if my talk fell short of perfection, I would share the blame with a higher power.
Invocations also now bring to mind my own family’s Friday night dinners when I was a child. Since I was reared in a traditional Jewish home, this was the special evening when our Sabbath began, and my mother — an excellent cook — would outdo herself with a menu which we all hoped would include her family-famous rib roast, fried potatoes, and lemon meringue pie.
I remember as a preschooler hearing my father recite the blessing over the wine and bread in Hebrew; somehow, the incomprehensible language he prayed in seemed appropriate since, as a youngster, I reasoned that a child should not understand communication as elevated as that between his own father and his Heavenly Father.
When I later learned Hebrew in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, I was proud that I could now understand the venerable language; later I was equally proud when I took five years of Latin in junior and senior high school and could translate passages from the Vulgate Bible as well. With both Hebrew and Latin training, I was naïve and pompous enough to believe that I now had knowledge of God’s special languages.
But my career as a teacher and preacher of literature has convinced me that the true language of God is not pronounced on the tongue but rather practiced in the heart: compassion, selflessness, honesty, kindness, and duty. This “language” — all deeds and no words — is more universal than Esperanto. The finest literary works and authors — Beowulf and Virginia Woolf; Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis; Great Gatsby and Great Expectations — transform these abstract, godly virtues into vibrant, credible characters. These characters then remain in our minds and often inspire us to emulate their virtuous ways in our own behavior. For this achievement alone, great authors deserve a perpetual benediction.