Shehecheyanu: Committing to a year of firsts

Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I am a closet card-aholic. It’s true. Some people eat when they get stressed. Others shop. Me? I head straight to the card aisle at Walgreens or CVS. If I’m really lucky and Hallmark has declared a holiday, like National Take Your Pet to Work Day, I can get lost for hours wondering if there is anyone I know, should know, or might know in the future for whom this type of card would be perfect.

And then, of course, there are the regulars, the ones I stockpile knowing they will be used in the coming months: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, get well, and my all-time favorite: fun and friendship cards. I buy them and stash them in secret places — in the kitchen behind the bills, in my nightstand under the list of movies I intend to rent, next to my computer in a file marked “Dates to Remember.” The problem is, I often forget where I put that special card for my brother until about two weeks after his birthday, so that many times it ends up with the word “belated” scratched into the greeting.

It should come as no surprise then, that I got the inspiration for writing this piece while card-surfing at Trader Joe’s. The card was enough — a picture of the horizon with a man in a boat sailing on the water. And in finely scripted letters under the picture was this question: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”

Wow. That really hit me. When was the last time I did something for the very first time? I couldn’t remember, although I did make a new sweet potato recipe for Thanksgiving, which I remembered clearly because I had to go to the store three times for ingredients I forgot.

I have kept the card on my desk for the past few weeks, its message like a banner before me. And as we begin a new year, I have decided to answer the question by making 2011 a year of “firsts.”

I don’t necessarily mean firsts that would make my mother dial 911, like bungee jumping or sky diving. Nor am I referring to things that cost a fortune or would require me to update my passport. What I’m talking about is this: Making 2011 the year where each month I try something I’ve never tried before, like eating a new food, wearing a new color or style, or reading a book I wouldn’t normally choose to read.

Not only is this an exciting way to embrace the new year, but it affords a very significant Jewish opportunity as well — that of being grateful for the blessing of having new things in our life.

The Jewish tradition has a wonderful way of honoring firsts with a blessing called the Shehecheyanu, which in Hebrew means “who has kept us in life.” The Shehecheyanu gives thanks to God “Who has kept us alive, preserved us and brought us to this special time.” On its face, it gives us a way to thank God for new and unusual experiences, such as watching a baby take her first steps, beginning a new job, moving into a new house or tasting the first vegetables from a garden. On a deeper level, it directs our attention to our surroundings, so that we develop an ability to “see” and “feel” the spiritual significance of events in our life.

The Shehecheyanu is also recited at the start of Jewish holidays, such as the first night of Chanukah and Passover, and to celebrate any long-awaited special occasion, such as the birth of a child or the retirement from a career.

Making 2011 a year of firsts is a win-win deal. It gives us a chance to grow and learn by expanding our horizons while encouraging us to be grateful for having lived to see the moment. We can bless God and our lives in many ways, and the Shehecheyanu helps remind us of who we are, from where we have come and how wonderful it is witness the people and events around us.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at