I am probably not the only clergy person who enjoys being present at landmark celebrations in people’s lives.
There are some who say that clergy may be among happiest people because of this unique opportunity that frequently arises in both smaller and larger congregations.
At celebrations of birth, the beginning of religious education, coming of age (Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition), and at weddings, I recite, in Hebrew and English, the passage from the book of Numbers known at the “Priestly blessing”:
“May the Eternal One bless you and keep you. May the Eternal One cause the light of the divine face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Eternal One lift the divine face towards you and grant you peace.”
One young woman at Temple Beth-El recently recited this very passage as part of her reading from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) during her service. In the middle of the service, I, in turn, spoke those words to pass on to her the blessing of our heritage.
On May 6, I pronounced those same words for my daughter-in-law, Juli, just after she had been ordained as a rabbi during a service at Congregation Emanu-El in New York City, culminating her five years as a student at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
The day before Juli’s ordination service, Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of HUC-JIR, suddenly and tragically died in the crash of a plane he was piloting along with an instructor. Rabbi Panken had been set to officiate at the ordination of each new cantor (trained musical clergy) and rabbi. Another faculty member was chosen to offer individual charges to each ordinee.
That turn of events required everyone present to take a different view of those moments of blessing. School alumni who were present to participate in the processional for the ceremony comforted faculty, students, college staff and each other. Before and during the service, the message was conveyed that, even after the death of a beloved teacher, mentor, leader, and friend, it was still a day of celebration on which it was appropriate to feel pride and joy.
Rabbi Panken wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The blessing that he gave to his colleagues, students, and members of audiences and congregations who heard him speak, was his commitment and enthusiasm as he communicated timely lessons embodied in the ancient texts that were his speciality.
His legacy was very much evident at ordination, as was his enduring presence in the way in which he touched the lives of so many in attendance.
The blessing from the book of Numbers reminds us that it is both our privilege and our responsibility to transmit to our peers and to the next generation significant gifts from the essence of who we are.
The person who utters those words serves as a conduit through which the one who is blessed receives gifts of affirmation, security, confidence, kindness, patience, acceptance, peace and well-being that can endure well beyond that poignant moment.
May we remember that there are always ways in which we can give one another blessings that can accompany us along our life’s path.