This Shabbat, and the Torah portion that accompanies it, are all about blessings. As we
will hear read beautifully tomorrow by our Bar Mitzvah, this portion contains the Priestly
Benediction which, to this day, we regard as an important blessing for one another.
The Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom describes this blessing as a “rising crescendo” – There
are three words in the first line, five in the second, and seven in the third; fifteen consonants in
the first line, twenty in the second, and twenty-five in the third. The sense conveyed is of
increasing, overflowing divine blessing.
That is how we attempt to feel on this holiest of holy days. Shabbat is considered by our
tradition to be the most important of all the holidays – perhaps because of its regularity,
Shabbat can become a centering force in our lives, when we choose its blessings. Ultimately,
however, this prayer can best be understood not through a line by line analysis, but in a
reflection of the way the words are used, and have been used for centuries – we use them to
bless our children.
God’s reminder to us this week is that blessings flow through us, and not from us. These
are ancient words, not our own, even as we share them. This simple fact helps us understand
the strange hand positioning that accompanies the blessing. When Leonard Nimoy was asked
to create something strange and powerful for his character on the TV show Star Trek, he
borrowed something he had seen, but was not supposed to see, from his own Jewish heritage.
You see, in a traditional synagogue, the act of blessing the children falls upon those
congregants who trace their lineage back to the Kohanim, the Priests of ages past. During the
High Holy Days, an entire group comes to the bimah, removes their shoes, and places their
talises over their heads, so that we do not imagine the blessing is coming from them, but rather
through them. They raise their hands and bless the people. And the obligation of those in
attendance was a promise not to look. We all cover our eyes. Nimoy has spoken extensively
about his very natural inclination to peek, to see what was happening that was forbidden, and
powerful. And then he ascribed this practice to Spock. It began as a blessing for our children.
Judaism and Shabbat services are (for me) steeped not only in tradition, but in the warm
feelings and memories of my childhood. I am not sure how one replaces the years of
connection, of music and song, of the strong sense of family that pervades Shabbat, when they
are absent. These are not only feelings that I experienced at summer camp, they arrived much,
much earlier, as my family met in family rooms and outdoor parks, often without a rabbi, to
bring in Shabbat as the sun set with food, music, and ancient words filled with new life. I have
spoken to more than one Jew who has converted later in life, and they often speak of a
powerful sense of longing for this history and background, something that many of us take for
More than the music, more than the potluck dinners, more than the sense of ownership
that pervaded the service, was the simple fact that our families were all together – kids, adults,
grandparents, visitors and guests. Single, married, divorced, widowed – all were equal, and all
were equally needed to feel that Shabbat had arrived. We created that atmosphere for our
children, once upon a time. We turned our attention to the future, the next generation,
without hesitation or concern. We did not feel that Judaism became dumbed down or
irrelevant, rather we invited the children to witness something that was deeply meaningful to
us, as adults, and they learned from our joy.
The Reform Jewish Educator and scholar Isa Aron calls this process “enculturation.”
Rather than teaching ourselves and our children in formal classes and schools, once upon a
time children knew from Judaism because they experienced it firsthand. We learned about
Shabbat by making Shabbat. We learned about grief and mourning having visited our friends
and family members, and watching them move through the valley of the shadow.
Some will argue that the decorum of religious services or religious ritual such as occurs
at the house of mourning do not allow for children – that children are a distraction rather than
an inspiration. And I remember a particular service in a particular sanctuary, when I became
convinced that our children need to be here, with us, engaged in something that speaks to
them, just as it speaks to us.
At Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, fifteen minutes before the service
begins, Shabbat-goers fill the sanctuary, and make their way across the bimah, lingering there.
There is no raised platform of any kind, and moveable chairs form an amphitheater of sorts.
Musicians warm up, but the gathering space is right there with them, rather than in the hall.
The rabbis speak to those preparing for their roles, to offer a d’var, to light the Shabbes
candles. But there is no sense of order or decorum, just a spirit of gathering.
Warm embraces are shared between those who have not connected between last
Shabbat and tonight, and, most importantly, children are seen, playing joyfully between the
chairs, behind the podium, among the parents, finding their friends, blissfully unaware of areas
that are perhaps “off-limits” or “inappropriate”.
There have been no prayers recited, no melodies sung, no sermons offered. And yet
Shabbat has clearly entered the room in the eyes of those children. It will be a formality in a
few moments when we rise for Lecha Dodi to welcome the Sabbath bride, because she is
already here. The joy of Shabbat enters the room in the faces of children, whether or not they
are our own. And I wish, each and every time I visit this congregation that I could freeze time,
now just five or seven minutes before the cantor is to begin. To live in this glorious and
comfortable space of play, and laughter, and anticipation of something beautiful.
We are, all of us, congregants and guests alike, invited to experience this moment as if
through the eyes of a child, with wonder and radical amazement. We are invited to breathe, to
actually be comfortable, to connect with friends, and to sing – really sing, to be invited into
song by familiar melodies and beautiful instruments as we did when we were children. This
child-like quality of Shabbat is the goal, and it is the reason why our children must be here for
us to experience it.
You have perhaps experienced something like this here at IHC tonight. We have worked
very hard to create opportunities for this kind of connection among families. Our children now
color as we greet one another in the same space, searching for name tags which bring us even
closer to one another. And when we enter the sanctuary we greet and welcome each other
with embraces, words of welcome, and music. And over time our families have taken more and
more ownership over this exchange. It seems to happen naturally, organically, and yet nothing
we do has been more carefully choreographed, debated, and structured.
There is another important reason why our children need to be here in this room with
us. It is perhaps a more obvious reason, but deserves to be stated nonetheless. Our children
are, quite literally our future. So many of us have worked hard to make this congregation
strong, many of us have created a legacy that lasts for many generations. And especially in this
day and age when younger Jews are looking for something very different in their Judaism from
what we sought ten or twenty of fifty years ago, our children must see what we have built.
They must experience our joy, our celebration so that they care to come back to this place with
their own children.
It is well and good to design programs for families with young children in other parts of
the building. It is a powerful message and an important one to offer childcare and babysitting
during services. But just as important are programs we offer which encourage our children to
come here, to be together with us, even for a short while. If the next generation is not
welcomed by us, even as we seek to be welcomed ourselves, then in another ten or twenty or
fifty years our synagogue will not be here any longer.
If we have a bias, this is it. We need to reach out to all our congregants, but doubly so
to families with young children, for they are our future. We need to ensure that all congregants
feel connected, of every age, but doubly so for those who have never felt welcomed into this
community, or for those who are reaching out to us for the first time. You and I must join
together to ensure that our youth feel that this is their place – that our youth activity center is
truly their physical space; that services take them into consideration; that when our youth are
engaged in leading services that we support and delight in their interest and leadership. And
that our youth professionals in the early childhood program, religious school, and youth groups,
who literally work day and night to connect with our kids and their families, are supported and
appreciated. They are on the front lines of a battle we must win, the battle for the hearts,
minds and spirit of the next generation of Jewish leaders, Jewish board members, Jewish
donors, and perhaps even Jewish professionals.
Alone we are merely a gathering of Jews, separated by walls; separated even by the
books in our hands – because they keep us from seeing each other, from reaching out and
taking the hand of another – the hand of a stranger or of a new friend.
This Shabbat is about blessings – not blessings you approach to receive, but rather the
blessings you have to offer. Finding those words in yourself – the blessings of experience, or
caution, of wisdom; allow each of us to enter these prayers and this day with a whole heart.
Then we look at one another, and at the children who grace us with their light and their spirit,
whether or not they are our own – and we will all offer them our blessing: may God be with you
and watch over you, may God’s light shine within you, and may God’s peace be with you on this