Rabbi Ain Sermon – July 4, 2015
When I was in the Navy I realized that as a Jew, I had not been trained to be very comfortable with spontaneous blessings. Unlike my Protestant and Catholic chaplains beside me, I did not feel that I had the power or the ability to offer blessings. I had not yet found the models in our tradition that would allow me to turn to the person next to me, or to turn to a soldier in need, and offer them a blessing.
But that summer I was asked to offer the benediction at our closing dinner. I had to, in English, offer a blessing to my class of chaplains as well as to the honored guests in the room. I began to think about how we bless in Hebrew. I know that I could not just translate. Rather, I wanted to find the right words for that moment. I wanted to be able to communicate my feelings in a religious manner. It was difficult to write but I was able to figure it out. Yet I was still in the same predicament-While I realized the power of blessings, I had I had just not yet accessed its power. I had not allowed myself to be comfortable with spontaneous prayer-the ability to open my mouth and bless the people I care about.
As we look in this week’s parasha we can find that the ability to offer spontaneous blessings is not as hard as we think. And we are then able to see from our tradition that it is through the offering of blessings that relationships with one another are truly strengthened.
In this week’s Parasha, Balak, we find the story of Bilaam, a soothsayer of sorts, employed by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. Bilaam, in an attempt to curse the Israelites, could in the end, only recite blessings. With the help of God and of course his donkey, Bilaam realized that it was the power of blessings that would really have an effect. So much so, that in front of Balak, Bilaam blessed Israel by saying “Bless those who bless you.” Bilaam recognized that the Israelites had to be blessed and in fact, that in order to be blessed, we then must bless others.
So the question is, what models do we have from our tradition for blessings.
The first model comes in our morning service as we develop our relationship with God. Each morning as we rise we recite the birchot hashachar, literally, the morning blessings. We bless God for making us free, for making us strong, more giving us the ability to see, and for freeing us from captivity. These, along with the other blessings in birchot hashsachar remind us of our relationship with God in our everyday lives. That without God’s blessings on us, our lives might be even more difficult. Therefore, we reflect on what we have and in turn, we bless God.
The next level of blessings is that between people. The priestly blessing, which signifies the last remnant of the Temple and therefore the relationship between the Cohanim and the people, now serves as a blessing in people’s lives. This three-fold phrase,
“May Adonai bless you and protect you
May Adonai show you favor and be gracious to you
May Adonai show you kindness and grant you peace”
This blessing is recited at weddings, circumcisions, the end of the amidah, and very often at shabbat tables. Just this past Tuesday we celebrated a bris of a member of our community, and I was so proud to remind the parents that just as we were invoking the priestly blessing at the bris and we will do so again, god willing, under the chuppah, we can do so ever Friday night. The recitation of the blessing by parents to their children is a wonderful model for us. It allows those of us who want to bless those close to us to do so without finding the words. And of course, whether we have children, or grandchildren of our own, blessing someone, face to face, is crucial. As we continue to explore blessings, the use of this formula is a wonderful way to start.
The final model of blessing, that for a community, comes to us at the end of the book of Exodus. As the mishkan, the tabernacle was completed, we read that Moses say all the work that God had commanded had been done and Moses blessed the Israelites.
What is the significance of him blessing them? What happened? A midrash tells that that when Moses blessed them he said “May it be God’s will that the Divine presence abide in the world of your hands.” And then the midrash tells us, the children of Israel responded by saying “And let the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us.”
At this wonderful moment of the completion of the mishkan we find that the people have found the ways to bless themselves. They were able to be in the moment and allow themselves, in their own words, to mark the occasion and the relationship with blessing. How incredible that the community, together, could find the spiritual way to invoke blessings.
So the gemara asks, if we want to bless, how do we do so? We find this series of questions and answers in Mesechet Sotah. The gemara asks, whether or not we should bless in only lashon hakodesh, the holy language of hebrew-but then it is raised, perhaps it is in any language? I take this as permission to offer blessings to one another in the language that is most meaningful. At times, that is certainly hebrew. But there are moments in our lives when we want to offer each other blessings in words that we understand and are meaningful. So don’t be fearful-bless in language that is familiar.
The next question is, how should we be physically related to one another? One rabbi says that we should be face to face when we bless. One rabbi says that we should be face to back. But the conclusion however is we should bless each other in the same way that a person talks to his friend. And finally the gemara asks when we bless, should we do so with a raised voice or with a whisper? We learn, like we did in the last question, that we should bless each other in the same way that we would speak to a friend. We see again that the power of blessings is found in how it enhances relationships between people.
Blessings have the power to increase relationship between one another. It is not easy to offer blessings, especially spontaneous ones. For that reason I urge each of us to turn to our tradition to find models so that when the time comes we are more comfortable with the power of blessings.
This weekend, today, we are celebrating July 4, our independence day as Americans, one of the highlights of the American Civil religion calendar. You might be asking yourself, what does July 4 have to do with parashat balak? I say, A LOT. On one hand, to celebrate Independence day we can bbq and watch fireworks and dress in red, white, and blue. But, we can do more than that as well. We can celebrate all that is good about our country, recognizing that there are plenty of other days to celebrate what is wrong.
We can celebrate that last week the supreme court made it legal for all those who are of age and consenting adults, to marry one another. We can celebrate that two weeks ago when a white man went in to a church with the intent of creating a race war, what he did was unite the races, and last weekend there were solidarity shabbatot with the African American communities. We can celebrate that while not always, but often, if you work hard and study hard you can improve yourself, fulfilling the American dream that has been part of the foundational narrative of our country.
Yes, there are critiques that many can give to all of these, but I believe that today is a day of blessings. A day of gratitude. A day of blessing. A day of saying “Mah Tovu Ohalecha USA”-how goodly are your tents America.
And so, as you think about blessings, here is what I would like to you do, when you leave shul today:
Think about who you would bless. Why would you bless them. What you would say. And then go do it.
We all deserve to be blessed, from our country, to each of our inhabitants.