June 2, 2023
Blessing the Transitions of our Children, and Ourselves
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
"Blessing the Transitions of our Children, and Ourselves"
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl
It is the season for graduations and it’s a big year for me. Last week, I watched this tall, bearded man walk across the podium, who had the same name as my baby boy!
And I marveled, how did that happen?!
And on Monday my youngest, Rose, will graduate from high school, rendering me and Jacob empty nesters. I know so many before us have been through this, but now that it’s happening to me, I’m still taken aback by how surprising the emotions feel. Lots of joy and awe, mixed in with nostalgia and loss.
And it’s not just graduation season, but seems to be wedding season too. This Sunday will be my fifth wedding in two months! And milestone events have a way of not only drawing up emotions, but playing with our sense of time.
There is a principle expressed in the Talmud: Ein Mukdam u’Meuchar baTorah, literally: “There is no early or late in the Torah.”
That explains that there’s no real chronology in the Torah. Meaning, things written after something earlier, could have happened before and vice versa. The Talmud uses this concept to explain fanciful midrashic stories like the one where Moses time travels to the 1st century to the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Akiva. All this is possible when there is no chronology. This idea challenges our linear way of thinking about time, but I’ve come to appreciate there are many moments when life is fluid like this.
I thought of this when I sat in my daughter’s final acapella concert recently. And I was fully in the moment. But then they brought out the little elementary school choir, the HalfNotes. Rose first began singing with them at age 7, and back then, the high schoolers seemed impossibly old.
I blinked and Rose became one of them.
When Rose closed out the concert singing “Fix You,” there wasn’t a senior parent who wasn’t crying. We know what’s coming–our children will soon be out of the house, doing what they are meant to do–which is no longer needing us.
Moments like these have a way of collapsing time so that you feel the vividness of the present, the immediacy of the past, just as you see the future. Ein Mukdam u’Meuchar. There is no early or late; it is all of it, all at once.
This was all very top of mind as I read a beautiful interpretation of the most famous lines from this week’s Torah portion. Parshat Naso contains Birkat Kohanim, known as the Priestly Benediction, a blessing we offer regularly at these milestones, like the aufruf I just officiated. It is also the traditional blessing parents offer their children every Shabbat.
The 16th Century Rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon of Luntschitz (also known by his less cumbersome nickname, the Keli Yakar for his most famous commentary on the Torah), writes a beautiful interpretation of this three-fold benediction. He sees each line representing three different stages of life and uses the language of daughter, sister, mother to represent the three lines. I invite you to think of language that resonates for you: son, brother, father; or student, peer, teacher.
Let me break down this beautiful blessing to expand on his commentary: Yivarechecha Adonai V’yishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you.
Yishm’recha, literally from shomer, to guard or protect. The first line reminds us that we all start out as children. We are someone’s daughter, son. We are all children of God. In this first stage, we need protection from a parent, teacher, loved one. A child cannot walk through the world without help, guardrails, security, and shelter. That is the first blessing, for our inner child, who needs safety and protection.
Yaer Adonai Panav Elecha, Vihuneka. May God look upon you and be gracious to you.
Elecha. We translate that as “upon” you, but in Hebrew it literally means “to you,” not looking down upon you, but elecha–an eye-level way to see another. As equals. As peers. This is the blessing of a sister to a sister, a friend to a friend. As a parent or as a teacher or mentor, it’s the moment when you realize that the one you have been caring for, teaching, and protecting, now stands across from you as a fully developed human, who may be “of” you, may be shaped by you, but is wholly their own person. Here you offer the blessing of “seeing them” in their own individuality, their authenticity, as an equal.
Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha, v’yasem l’cha Shalom. May God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace.
Here the directionality is very clear: God is looking up at us, lifting up God’s face to you. It is how a parent might look up to an adult child, admiring who they have become. A teacher, looking at her student, who has surpassed her in wonderful ways. There becomes a natural shifting of roles, where the child, the student, now cares for the elder. But the elder still has the wisdom to bless the younger with peace, a peace that they have acquired with the passage of time.
Tonight, when I go home to my shabbat table, I will offer this priestly blessing to my daughter as I have every week of her life. And seated around my table will be my parents, who have come in for the special occasion.
I am simultaneously Daughter. Sister. Mother.
And the roles have shifted around with time. I know when I bless Rose through my tears tonight, my child will be the one comforting me. And I will fret over protecting my parents as we navigate the city as they age.
But perhaps the wisdom of this Birkat Kohanim is that we can hold the past, present and future all at once. We can hold together the blessings of protection, of authenticity and peace for all our loved ones at every stage. And we can appreciate that these moments of blessing are when we touch the eternal nature of time–no early, no late, but forever.