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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

September 6, 2021

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782:  May God Bless You And Keep You

It was a Sunday in December of 2020. Months into the pandemic, we were already accustomed to logging on to Zoom, gathering virtually with family, friends, using electronic devices for work, and as a Temple family. Video chat and modern technology certainly made the depths of the pandemic more bearable. On many occasions, technology was the glue keeping us together. On that Sunday, I logged on to Zoom to officiate at the wedding of our Temple members, Ben Liptzin and Liz Schneider. 

While we certainly wished we could have been together in person, Zoom enabled this beautiful event to occur. What’s more, with family and friends scattered across the country and the world, Ben and Liz were able to welcome all of their guests into one sacred, virtual space to celebrate together. I will forever remember seeing Ben and Liz under a chuppah in their home in a tiny square on my computer screen, surrounded by tiny squares of their loved ones from around the globe.

As we came to the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, I invited Ben and Liz to wrap themselves in a Tallit. And I offered them this blessing, words from our tradition, one of our oldest prayers, the Priestly Benediction - Birkat Kohanim:

Y’varechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha - May God bless you and keep you

Ya’er Adonai panav elecha viychuneka - May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you

Yisa Adonai panev elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom - May God lift up God’s countenance upon you, and grant you peace

Kein yihi ratzon - May this be God’s will!

These are words that transcend time and space, that bind us across miles and place. And while the pandemic took so much from us, it did not take away our ability to bless each other, to celebrate, to create new families, to knit together loving partners, to hold up our community like the poles of a chuppah. Every time I offer this blessing, I am grateful to be able to say these holy words.

May God bless you and keep you. Words drawn originally from the book of Numbers, from our Torah, now a powerful part of our liturgy and ritual, offered up at our most sacred moments. This year, throughout our High Holy Days, we will focus on this incredible blessing, the Priestly Benediction, Birkat Kohanim.

As you may know and remember, I choose a theme each year for my sermons. When deciding on this year’s topic, I knew it had to be this blessing. They are words that have held our community together through times of challenge and struggle. And since March of 2020, we have been through a lot. As we enter 5782, as we move toward a year of health, of hope, of normalcy - we pray, all I want to do is offer this blessing, over and over again. This is a year to be grateful, and this is a year to bless and bless and bless again. This year, my words are a blessing for all of you.

Birkat Kohanim is simple and elegant in its structure. Three lines, six verbs. May God bless you and keep you - the first line, the first two verbs. Bless. Keep. 

We invite God to offer us a blessing - but what does that mean, exactly? What does it mean to be blessed? Sforno, an Italian rabbi of the 15th century, explicitly understood this as material wealth, as possessions, as riches. We know that to have homes, food, and other possessions are certainly a blessing. However, I think we can go deeper than that in considering this prayer.

The Midrash, our interpretive tradition, believes that the blessing to which Birkat Kohanim refers can be found in another book of Torah, in words from Deuteronomy. As we learn:

“May God Bless You refers to this blessing: "Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field … Blessed shall be your basket… Blessed shall you be in your coming in and blessed shall you be in your going out." (Deut. 28:3-6; Sifrei Bamindbar 40). 

 Here, we connect material wealth to spiritual well-being. May you be blessed wherever you live. May you be blessed in your occupation and in your home. May you be blessed wherever you go.

Blessed in your coming and blessed in your going - these are words that connect us to Shabbat. Shalom aleichem, peace upon you, we sing. Bo’achem l’shalom - come in peace. And once again, as we conclude our song, tzeitchem l’shalom - go in peace. We ask for a blessing in all places, in all times.

Blessings in all places, at all times. All we want to do is bless. This idea, too, is rooted in our tradition. In the Talmud, we learn that it is ideal for a person to offer at least 100 blessings a day! 100! While that seems like a lot, when we open ourselves up to the goodness in the world around us, we could easily exceed 100 blessings a day. Whether you know the traditional words, to bless the wine on Shabbat, to say ha’motzi - as became our pandemic tradition, to bless any carb you happened to have handy, right Alan? 

We have blessings we can say for seeing beauty in nature, and blessings for seeing a friend after a year of separation, as I shared at our first in-person Shabbat last month. Blessings for food and shelter, those material possessions. Blessings for learning Torah, blessings for your body working in all the ways it should. And if you don’t know a traditional, Hebrew blessing for something, you can always invent your own. A blessing acknowledges something good in the world. I invite each and every one of you to pick a day and strive for one hundred blessings, one hundred things to bless. Send me your list - I’d love to see it!

Y’varechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you. May God keep you. Our second verb is keep - Shamor.

We also know this verb from Shabbat - Shamor v’zachor, b’dibur echad, the words we sing and clap along to with joy when Mike leads us in L’cha Dodi. Shamor v’zachor, keep and remember. Why do we need to do both of these things on Shabbat? 

We are told to observe Shabbat many, many times throughout our Torah. However, one prominent place where we see this instruction is in the Ten Commandments. As my Torah study regulars know, the Ten Commandments appear not once - but twice - in our Torah - the book of Exodus, and again in the book of Deuteronomy. 

In the first recitation of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus, we read: 

Zachor et yom HaShabbat - zachor, remember the day of Shabbat (Exodus 20:8)

And in the second time, in Deuteronomy, we read:

Shamor et yom HaShabbat - Shamor, keep the day of Shabbat (Deut. 5:12)

Ramban, a 12th century Spanish rabbi, makes an explicit connection between Birkat Kohanim, may God keep you, and shamor et yom ha’Shabbat - keep the day of Shabbat. And we learn from Echad Ha’am, early Zionist leader: More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. Now we are getting a sense of what it means to keep. This year, these months, throughout the pandemic, we have known what it means to keep Shabbat and for Shabbat to keep us. For so many, logging on for Shabbat was our weekly connection to Temple, to community, perhaps, at very isolating times of the pandemic, one of our only connections outside of the four walls of our homes. As we kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept us together. 

Shamor v’zachor - keep and remember - two variations on a theme, but two different verbs. We are kept together, kept in blessing, protected, safe, secure. That’s the sense of shamor. And we remember - we pay attention, we recall, we do not forget the challenges and the struggles. For the past year and a half, Shabbat has kept our community together in safety and in memory, in challenging times and in times of abundance and joy.

Shamra nafshi, v’hatzileini - there’s that verb again - keep my soul, guard me, and save me, O God, declares the Psalmist (Ps 25:20), the biblical poet who often looks to God for safety and security. How many times in the past year and a half did we offer those words, in some form or fashion? Protect me, God. Grant me safety and health. Keep my family safe, my loved ones protected. Guard my soul. Shamra nafshi, v’hatzileini. We ask for protection and we remember the moments we felt like we were in the pit, in the depths of despair. We do not need to forget what happened to us in our darkest moments. We can remember how we held each other up, how we offered blessings and drew strength from our prayers.

Y’varechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you. These are words that I offer to my children each Shabbat, that I share with wedding couples, at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and baby namings. Words that we offer to Temple leadership at times of transition and celebration, honoring those who honor our community with their service and dedication.

We often share these words in front of an open ark. Throughout the pandemic, I found myself imagining our ark, what it would be like to say this blessing in our sanctuary, rather than our homes. Rather than diminish our blessings, I think we have only added to them by sharing this prayer beyond the walls of our Temple. 

May there only be more blessings in the world. May God bless you and keep you. We share these words of blessing with you tonight, and throughout the holidays. Kein yihi ratzon - may this be God’s will.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784