rabbinic writing
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rabbinic writing

A Blessing For All That You Are

Even on our darkest days.

Image from My Jewish Learning: What Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know

Before every Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Cantor and Rabbi Kahn or I gather with the family of the student who is entering this sweet rite of passage. We remind the student of all kinds of things: how hard they have worked, that this is not about perfection, and that we are so, so proud. And then, each shabbat morning, I like to tell the family to huddle up. I used to huddle up with them, but, you know, COVID. So, they huddle, and Cantor and I stand a few feet back and then together we share these words of blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Holy One of Blessing, your presence fills creation. You have given us life and sustained us and enabled us to celebrate on this once-in-a-lifetime kind of day.

And sometimes, I tell the students: we do this almost every week. We share these words of blessing — and it the blessing is always true. The celebration is always unique. The service is always one-of-a-kind, even on the weeks (like this one)when we are doing two services back to back. I look them in the eye and I tell them, this one is special, because this one is led by you, and no one else can do this the way that you will. No one else is just like you. The blessing that we share today — this one is for you.

It was one such morning, three years ago last week — that Rabbi Kahn officiated a Bar Mitzvah as news headlines were coming in that shattered the Jewish world. On this Shabbat morning, children all over the world were becoming B’nai Mitzvah. And at one synagogue in Pittsburgh instead of celebration, there was tragedy. Hatred reigned bullets and shattered the shabbat peace for the Tree of Life Synagogue, and for each and every one of us. That morning, in that synagogue, there had been a blessing: a baby boy blessed in the presence of his community.

Image: Sarah Cutshall, Pitt News

There was blessing, and there was terror.
And we were all forever changed.

In this week’s Torah portion, too, we have a blessing. Two brothers, and a father, nearing the end of his life. He reaches for his son.

הַגִּ֤שָׁה לִּי֙ וְאֹֽכְלָה֙ מִצֵּ֣יד בְּנִ֔י לְמַ֥עַן תְּבָֽרֶכְךָ֖ נַפְשִׁ֑י
“Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.” (Gen 27:25)

But of course: The son that he reaches for is not the son that he meant to bless. Jacob has tricked his father and deceived his brother, and stolen the blessing that was not, technically, meant for him.

His brother Esau returns, devastated.

בָּרְכֵ֥נִי גַם־אָ֖נִי אָבִֽי
“Bless me too, father!” (Gen 27:34)
Bless me, too! He cries.

And the lives of these brothers are forever changed. Jacob runs, afraid of Esau’s wrath. And Esau remains with hate in his heart and vengeance on his tongue.

This too, is a blessing. A stolen blessing. A tragic blessing.
But a blessing none-the-less.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that despite the questionable circumstances, each brother received the blessing that was meant for him. He writes:

“Isaac fully understood the nature of his two sons. He loved Esau but this did not blind him to the fact that Jacob would be the heir of the covenant. Therefore, Isaac prepared two sets of blessings, one for Esau, the other for Jacob. He blessed Esau (Gen. 27:28–29) with the gifts he felt he would appreciate… that is, wealth. … [and], power. These are not the covenantal blessings.

The covenantal blessings that God had given Abraham and Isaac were completely different. They were about children and a land. …This was the blessing Isaac had intended for Jacob all along.”

We look to these words today and we understand what a blessing really is:

A recognition of truth.
An articulation of Divine spark.
And a hope for what will be.

This is why, though the words are the same, each blessing that we offer a student on the day of his or her bar or bat mitzvah is different, and unique to them. This is why each baby that is born, each person who comes to Torah, each child on whose head we lay our hands receives a blessing all their own. Because we lay our hands with an intentional, and individual kind of love.

Tomorrow morning, we celebrate. Not one, not two, but three blessings as three completely unique, distinct, and delightful students become bar and bat mitzvah. And before each service we well remind them: there is no blessing in the world quite like you.

And we do this on the shabbat that culminates a difficult week in the Jewish world. I am sure that many of you have heard about anti-Semitic incidents in Texas. Hatred that reminds us that the Tree of Life tragedy was not such a long time ago. That no matter how much love we put into the world, it can still be a very scary place.

Swastikas on the walls of a High School.
An anti-Semitic banner hanging from an overpass.
Neo Nazis protesting a fundraiser for Israel in San Antonio.
Arson at a Reform synagogue in Austin.

@AustinFireInfo tweets: AFD on scene of a small exterior fire at Congregation Beth Israel 3901 Shoal Creek Blvd. fire is out. No injuries. Arson investigators responding to assist with cause determination.

I hear from my colleagues in Texas and they are sad. And they are scared. And like the light that they want to shine in the world is dimmed while they scrub down the walls and clean up the rubble and sweep up the ashes of hatred that have tainted their holy home. It feels like a blessing has been stolen from them. The blessing of safety, the blessing of pride. The blessing of comfort.

We feel more like Esau, in this moment, than we do like Jacob. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing — like our brother in our clothing -is trying to misrepresent us to the world. Like we want to cry, ‘bless me too, Father, bless me too!’ And the challenge at a time like this: when we have been wronged, when we have been hurt, when something important like our security or our safety or our hope has been taken from us — the challenge is not to walk in the way of Esau.

It is challenging not to hold a heart of vengeance.
It tough to remember: that what has happened to us is truly awful.
And we are still a blessing.

Hurt can make us hard. Fear can make us steely.
It can turn our hearts to stone.

Tomorrow morning, we look to the three young people who are sharing their birthright with our community, and we bless them. We look to the babies that have been born, the anniversaries that we celebrate, the weddings at which we rejoice and even the funerals where we remember our loved ones with tear-stained joy, and know: this is a blessing.

A recognition of truth.
An articulation of the Divine spark.
And a hope for what will be.

To offer genuine words of loving blessing, it is not just a ‘nice’ — it is necessary.

Poet and Liturgist Marcia Falk rewrites the traditional priestly benediction. She considers the intent: what is a truest, deepest hope for our children? What do we want them to know, both on our darkest days, and in the shining light? What do we want to feel while they are sweeping up ashes? How do we honor them as they stand tall in strength?

She offers:
Be who you are. And may you be blessed in all that you are.

A blessing that carries us, even on the anniversaries of our tragedies.
A blessing that shines on us, even in a week that has been tainted by hate.
A blessing that can’t be stolen, or cheated or tricked.

Be who you are. For this is how your light shines.
Be blessed in all that you are. For this is how we carry on.

We bless the candles. We bless our wine. We bless our space. We bless our children and we bless one another and we bless this sacred shabbat day.

For this recognition of truth,
the spark of God of within us:
and our hope for what will be.

This is the blessing that will always be ours.

Image from PJ Library: How To Bless Your Children On Shabbat

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin
Parashat Toldot, 11.5.2021
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale

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Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.