I feel very blessed. I don’t want to sound haughty as if I have more blessings than others, for I’m certain that I don’t. However, I do experience a profound sense of awareness and appreciation on a very regular basis. Some of it is probably in my DNA; some of it is a wake-up call connected to early loss, and most is a good mixture of the two.
Jerry and I are in basic good health other than the normal aches and pains that come with – no, not aging, but gaining years of wisdom. We have been blessed with the ability to sustain ourselves financially, and small things bring us happiness and joy. And for the biggest blessing and a need to say my superstitious “poo-poo” a dozen times, warding off the evil eye, we have healthy children and grandchildren. When I don’t sweat the small stuff, I can feel a wholeness, a real sense of Shalem.
Not only do we have blessings, but we can bless others and receive blessings in return. This week’s Torah portion, Nasso, contains three of the best known verses in Torah, collectively called the Priestly Benediction or the Birkat Kohanim. God gives the exact wording to Moses instructing him to tell Aaron and his sons (the priests) to bless the people Israel – children and adults. “Thus shall they link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
Our people have been blessing each other for generations with the words of the Priestly Benediction. So commonplace are these words that it can be easy for us to forget their power-not just their importance in the biblical text, but also their significance in our own age. To this day, these words are used as a child is welcomed into the covenant of Judaism, when children are blessed each Shabbat, when a boy or girl becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, when a couple sanctifies their relationship under the chuppah, and at other important moments of life cycle and liturgy.
May Adonai bless you and keep you!
May Adonai shine upon you and show compassion to you.
May Adonai bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!
Even now, I can recall the depth of emotion I felt both summers in Israel, when, as part of the B’nai Mitzvah of my grandchildren, Noah and Jordyn in 2014 and then Ari and Orly in 2017, Rabbi Cohen and Adam that first summer, wrapped their loving arms around these young teens and recited these same words, invoking God’s blessing on them. I watched, listened with abated breath, and whispered each time, Thank You, God for this moment.
The simplicity of this blessing points to its eloquence. These three lines contain six ideas that comprise the blessing: The first line asks that God bless and keep; the second, that the light from God’s face shine and be gracious; the third, that God’s Presence be lifted up and that God give peace, a sense of fullness.
The experience of receiving a blessing – the experience of hearing and seeing the focused, spiritual attention, and the physical connection of touch – can be a source of sustenance, faith, and meaning. Perhaps it is most powerful for those who have had the opportunity to bless their children around the Shabbat table. The beauty of Jewish rituals is that it is never too late to put them into place. So here is my humble suggestion: This Shabbat, gather your children around the table. Light the candles and take a sip of wine or juice. Then gently place your hands on their shoulders or head and whisper your prayer. It can be the three lines of blessing written above, or it can be your own personal thoughts. It may feel awkward at first, but your children will come to love and treasure this moment. And, when we speak our words of blessing, we are God’s messengers. When these ancient words are voiced, they can break through the noise and chaos of the world so that we can each hear a still, small voice, telling us how to make these blessings become truths. When we bless others with these words, we pray that the blessing’s recipients have all the good that they yearn for and protection from all the evils of the world. We pray that they be enlightened with the wisdom of Torah and of the world and that they have grace to behave toward others kindly. And, we pray that they find a relationship with a God who smiles at them and that they find shalom-an inner wholeness, despite the difficulties that they face.
When we speak our words of blessing, we are God’s messengers.
And when we bless others with these words, the place in which we find ourselves becomes a holy place. We learn this lesson when Moses completes the Tabernacle. Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, connects these verses, noting, “For on the day that Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them, the dedication of the Tabernacle took place.” Only after the people have been blessed could the structure that allowed for God to dwell among them be complete-the blessing allows for the dedication, and in essence is the way through which the dedication begins. This teaches a great lesson: holy community must precede holy space. At the same time that humanity is given the power to offer blessings, humanity is also given the additional power to transform ordinary places into holy ones. Sanctity is a matter of human declaration. The power is in our hands.
The month of May is ALS Awareness Month, and every year in Chicago and suburban communities, volunteers are in the streets and shopping areas, canning to raise funds with the goal of finding a cause and cure for this devastating disease. As many of you know, my mom died at the age of 52, after battling ALS for 3 years. I was 18, and her primary caregiver. My personal memories of those years remain painfully within me, and so the experience is excruciating when people make the conscious decision to ignore your presence. One after another would either go out of their way to avoid getting too close to my request for their support; others just waved a dismissal hand. And although there were kind, thoughtful people who gave and thanked me for what I was doing, I began to spiritually wear down. Well…until I met ‘Joan,’ a sweet elderly woman who cheerfully stated, “I’ll get you on my way out!” And sure enough she did, stopping her grocery cart, filled with bags, to look for some change in the bottom of her purse. Joan took out every item from that worn bag, and alas, could not find a penny to spare. “Ah,” she said. “No need to worry, for I have a dollar in my car.” I told her that it was unnecessary to go through the trouble; I was just so grateful that she made such an effort. “My mom died when I was a teen, and I take it so personally when people behave as if I were invisible.”
“Let me tell you about this dollar I have,” Joan says. “A dear friend of mine recently passed away, and at her funeral, her daughters gave everyone a single dollar wrapped with a ribbon, sharing that their mom always kept one in her visor, just in case someone came along in need of her support. I’m going to get the one I have in my visor, because I want to give it to you.” She gave me the most tender hug and then quickly went to her car. When Joan pulled up next to me, her face beaming, she dropped that dollar into the container, took my hand, and so tenderly said, “May God always be with you.”
We have the power to offer blessings to God and blessings to others. We have the power to transform the lives of those around us. We have the power to make any place into a place of holiness in which God dwells. Joan did that for me on a Shabbat when my spirit was breaking. Indeed, we have the power to transform ordinary places into holy ones.
May this divine prayer be our own as well, as we seek to relate to ourselves, to one another, and ultimately to God.
Ken yihi ratzon.
- Shabbat Va-eira - January 2, 2019
- Shabbat Vayeshev - November 27, 2018
- Shabbat Vayeira - October 24, 2018
- Shabbat Vayeilech - September 12, 2018
- Shabbat Re’eh - August 7, 2018
- Shabbat Balak - June 26, 2018
- Shabbat Nasso - May 23, 2018
- Shabbat Tazria - April 10, 2018
- Shabbat P’kudei - March 6, 2018
- Shabbat Yitro - January 30, 2018