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

September 7, 2021

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5782: May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you

One Shabbat, when I was living in Jerusalem, a friend invited me to attend services with her. The style of service was more traditional than I was used to, but I was eager to check it out, because I had heard they did a lot of beautiful singing. Living Jerusalem is an amazing opportunity to see and experience different stripes and styles of Jewish practice and observance. 

I enjoyed the extended opening prayers very much, singing psalms and songs of praise, thanking God for the blessing of Shabbat. As we made our way into the Amidah, I enjoyed the time for silence, something that we have experimented with during our zoom and streaming services. As we made our way to Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction, I heard something I had never heard before. 

“Kohanim! Kohanim!” one of the service leaders called out.

A small group of men made their way to the front of the room. I nudged my friend. “What’s going on?” 

“Those are people who can trace their line back to the Kohanim, the priests. They’re going to offer us the priestly benediction.”

And indeed, they did. Standing with their backs to the congregation, their tallitot, prayer shawls, like a wall, they lifted their arms, and they recited those sacred words, offering us this blessing:

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 panav 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!

I later learned that this ritual is called dukhenin, the moment when all those who trace themselves to the priestly line offer this blessing for the congregation.

You may have grown up in a community where this was the common practice, and, perhaps, like it was then for me, this sounds completely foreign to you. In the vast majority of Reform congregations, this blessing is no longer reserved for those in the line of Kohanim, who often have the last name Cohen in English.

The early Reform movement of the 1800s was defined by many innovations. Women and men were considered equal members of the community, a principle we still value today. Many prayers were translated and introduced in the vernacular, the familiar language, first in German and later, in the United States, in English. This enabled a deeper understanding of the meaning of the prayers for those unfamiliar with Hebrew.

Another significant theological change made by the early Reformers was removing references to the priestly class, to those who could trace their line back to Kohanim. In addition to offering the priestly benediction, Kohanim typically were also granted the first Aliyah of a Torah reading, no matter the day, time, or circumstance.

There was a certain beauty in that moment for me in Jerusalem, of seeing the ritual, supposedly reenacting a moment at the ancient Temple. There was something profound about being blessed in that dramatic way. 

However, I am inspired by the early Reform Jews who chose to change this practice, drawing upon a powerful line of Torah:

V’atem tihiyu li mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh

God says to the people, and you shall be, for me, a nation of priests, a holy people.     (Exodus 19)

Here, God does not single out Kohanim. God says each and every member of the Jewish people is a member of a nation of a priests, a holy people. Like the equity between men and women, this egalitarianism was inspirational to the early Reform Jews, and remains so for me, today. Each person has the ability to study, to learn, and to teach. Each person is able to offer blessings. Each of us is holy, each of us is a leader.

As I shared last night, the theme for my High Holy Day sermons this year is that very blessing, Birkat Kohanim. Last night, we focused on the first line - may God bless you and keep you. Tonight, we turn to the second line - Ya’er Adonai panav elecha viychuneka - May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. 

This line, while poetic, may strike us as odd. God has a face? God’s face can shine? Isn’t God without a body, without form, or human features?

With these words, we have entered the land of metaphor. The word ya’er, shine, contains the root for light - the Hebrew word Or. In other words, it means cause to be lit, or enlighten. 

We have many ways to connect to this concept, both literally and figuratively. In our morning liturgy, we ask God to v’haer eineinu b’Toratecha - enlighten our eyes with Torah, with God’s teaching, showing us the right path and a way to live by our values.

In our parasha this morning, we learn that the world begins with light. And God said - Let there be light. And that was the beginning of creation.

And the early Reform Jews were a product of the Enlightenment, a time period that celebrated new ideas, innovations, and the rights of the individual. The same ideals that inspired our Bill of Rights - Each person is endowed with certain unalienable rights, that all are created equal. 

That same radical idea, not unlike the words from our Torah. A nation of priests, a holy people, each and every person a sacred individual. 

Just as the early Reformers introduced many new, enlightened ideas, the Reform movement has continued in that legacy as the movement of innovation, adaptation, and vision for the future. The Enlightenment was one such time of great change in society. Our most recent and continuing era, that of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been a time of tumult and change.

I’ve heard people refer to “pandemic silver linings” or “the bright side of the pandemic.” For me, it is hard to see a bright side or silver lining to a time period of such loss, illness, isolation, and sadness - and I like to think of myself as an optimist! 

However, like the Enlightenment and other periods that prompted great change, I think there are a few big, new, enlightened ideas that we can take away from this time period, ideas that very well may shape the future of Judaism and our world. I want to share three of these Enlightened Ideas.

First, Jewish life is a Palace in Time, Not Space.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us that Shabbat exists as a palace, as a holy sanctuary in time, not in space. The hours of Shabbat that we set aside, whether on a Friday night for services, Shabbat morning for Torah Study or a hike, or the entire day - that time is what is sacred, what we sanctify when we kindle our Shabbat lights. The idea is similar for holidays like Rosh Hashanah - we set aside this time, these hours, for prayer and reflection. 

If we have learned anything from this time period, it’s that Shabbat does not only exist in one place. It doesn’t only exist at 26 Broad Street, in our sanctuary. We’ve logged in to Zoom services from Pittsfield and Lenox, from Sarasota and San Francisco. Shabbat is about setting aside the time, even as we wished we could be together in the same place. Place matters, and creates that holy connection. That’s why I am so pleased that this year we are able to livestream our services out to you from our sanctuary. But we know that time matters even more - setting aside this time, making it holy, knowing that even if we are not sitting together in the same holy place, we are together in the same holy time.

Second enlightened idea. Less is more. 

During the pandemic, especially in the early days of complete isolation at home, in our daily lives, we went out less, we did fewer activities, and we saw fewer people. We may have felt saddened by this “less,” by the loss associated with missing out and missing others. 

Here’s a Jewish way to reframe that retraction in our lives, the act of doing less. We can call it the act of tzimtzum, which is the idea of retracting ourselves to create more space for creativity, for creation. When God was preparing the create the world, on this day, the birth day of the world, so the story goes, God retracted Gods-self, practicing tzimtzum, creating space for the world to be born.

By practicing tzimtzum during this pandemic, we created space to figure out what truly mattered, both by what we were able to do, who we were able to be with, and in some cases, who we were not able to be with and what we were not able to do.

Many of us tried new things, experimented with new hobbies. And others stopped doing things that we only did out of habit. 

We took deep breaths, and we paused. Sometimes, boredom and loneliness filled those pauses. But sometimes when we paused, we found the time to rest and reset. We fulfilled the ideal of a shmita year, the biblical injunction to let the land lie fallow, to rest, every seventh year, so that it might once again produce a healthy and fruitful crop. This year, 5782, marks the beginning of a shmita year in the land of Israel, and I look forward to studying and sharing more about shmita with you this year.

And a third enlightened idea. Perhaps we knew it before, and we know it now more than ever. Relationships matter. 

When we could not be together, we still found ways to connect, whether on zoom, phone, text or even writing letters. I heard of several pandemic penpals who loved reconnecting with this lost art. We checked in with each other and found ways to show we cared. What’s more, we learned that we needed to be intentional about maintaining relationships with people that we didn’t just run into on North Street or at the grocery story or on the Tanglewood lawn. We had to take the time to seek people out, to say, “I was thinking of you.”

Our Temple Caring Committee was more essential than ever, making wellness calls, sharing information about vaccinations, making meals, and more. I am so grateful, as I know we all are, for the efforts of this wonderful group.

And many of us had the chance to use technology to reconnect with family and friends. We learned how to use zoom and we were all stuck at home, so why not have a regular time to speak with family or reach out to long lost friends from high school or college? My family set up a regular zoom call every Sunday, with four generations calling in from coast to coast. We lit Chanukah candles on zoom every night with our parents. I had a virtual reunion with my high school semester in Israel class, the first time we all intentionally reconnected since we left the kibbutz we lived in together in the Judean hills. 

Across time and space, decade and place: relationships matter. They are a gift and a blessing.

Returning to our line from our blessing, the priestly benediction, birkat kohanim. Ya’er Adonai panav elecha viychuneka - May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. 

Where does grace and graciousness fit in for us? 

It is an act of grace to give ourselves the space and the freedom of these enlightened ideas, then and now.

I invite us to be gracious to ourselves as we tiptoe back to normalcy, doing so in an enlightened way.

May we be enlightened. May we be gracious to each other and to ourselves.                     Kein yehi ratzon.

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

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784