Friday, May 25, 2007

Naso: A Benediction in Transition

Y'varech'cha Adonai v'yishm'recha
Ya'eir Adonai panav eleicha vi'huneka
Yisa Adonai panav elecha v'yaseim l'cha shalom

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.

(Num. 6:24-26)

When I look back at my childhood, I have two distinct memories of the Priestly Benediction, the prayer given by God to Moses and Aaron in this week’s Parsha, Naso. The first such memory isn’t a specific instant, but a collective memory of being blessed by my parents every Friday night at the Shabbat dinner table prior to our meal. As the weekly ritual of my parents fighting over who would get the honor of blessing either my sister or I unfolded, I would watch in awe - I realized how seriously my parents took this blessing. As I grew older I realized its importance. It wasn’t just any blessing or prayer; it was an inheritance.

By my pubescence, the power and meaning of the Priestly Benediction became clear. It was the act of passing God and God’s teachings unto the next generation. Allowing our children to be engulfed and protected by God’s will, which brings me to a second memory: my Bar Mitzvah. I had watched each week as my classmates were called to the Torah to become B’nei Mitzvot, each being blessed with the Priestly Benediction by our Rabbi, which seemed common place at the time. Just another part of the Bar Mitzvah service, on par with the gift-giving arms of the synagogue family trudging up to the bima for their weekly 15 seconds or 15 minutes of fame, depending upon who was bestowing the gift that week.

Sept. 13, 1997 was my turn to shine. I was becoming a man. My family and friends had gathered, and I was a nervous wreck. As I woke on that Saturday morning, I felt all the knowledge of my Bar Mitzvah studies trying to escape from my subconscious. But once I got to the synagogue, it was game time, and I had my game face on. This was surely an intimidating sight, coming from a slightly overweight 13-year-old boy with a bowl haircut. The service ran smoothly, and I could see the pride gleaming in my parents’ eyes. Then it was time for the Priestly Benediction.

The Rabbi placed his hand over my head, hovering six inches above. There was a perceived power due to his differing hand placement from that of my parents, who had firmly and lovingly placed their hands on my head each week at the Shabbat dinner table. I felt as if electricity ran through my Rabbi’s hand, through the air and into my head. I knew at that moment that the Priestly Benediction was not only an inheritance from parent to child, but also one from the entire Jewish people to its newest full member. I felt the weight of 6,000 years of tradition bearing down on me vicariously through my Rabbi's outstretched hand. At that moment, I accepted the responsibility of carrying on that tradition by accepting the blessing.

Fast-forwarding to the present, almost a decade since my Bar Mitzvah, the priestly benediction has a different application in my life. Although I feel the power of God it prescribes every day, I no longer hear it said - and definitely not toward me - on a regular basis. I no longer have weekly Friday night dinner with my immediate family. My adopted DC family of 20-somethings is a suitable replacement, but no blessing for children is recited. I no longer attend regular Saturday morning services; a consistent hangover has replaced a few hours of Shabbat prayer. The opportunity to see a Rabbi greet a Bar Mitzvah into Jewish adulthood with the Benediction is a distant memory, but also approaches beyond the horizon. As I live through the transition from childhood to parenthood, the Priestly Benediction conjures great memories of my youth, and hopefully will do the same for my children.

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