Rabbi Karen Citrin
May 30, 2014
Two nights ago, I received a text from a freshman student at the University of California in Santa Barbara. It said: “Hi Rabbi Karen, I don’t know if you’ve heard what happened at my school Friday night, but there was a mass shooting and my sorority was the shooter’s target. I’m having an extremely rough time dealing with everything. I would love to talk to you soon about things if you have some time.”
Lindsey, the young woman who sent me this text, grew up at the congregation I served during the past ten years in northern California. Lindsey was president of the temple’s high school youth group, and continued her Jewish studies at temple through 12th grade. She is a dedicated Jew, and a thoughtful and caring young woman.
I talked with Lindsey for awhile the other night, and mainly listened to her recount her experience of the horrific events of last Friday night. She was having dinner with a close friend in Isla Vista, the extremely popular part of town frequented by many college students. The restaurant was just minutes away from her sorority house, the place where she often studied and hung out with friends during her first year of college. She heard gun shots, which she first thought were fireworks. Later she walked over to her sorority house, and was shocked to see the bodies of two dead women on the lawn, and police surrounding the area. Elliot Rodger killed six students that night, and injured others before shooting himself.
Clearly, in response to this event a week ago and the many other senseless shootings that have plagued our county in recent years, there is much to say and do about the need to reform gun laws in our country. Over and over we have witnessed another tragic incident, and sadly not much has changed. The violence and loss of innocent life must stop. A fuller message about gun control will be saved for another time. This evening, I would like to say more about the feelings surrounding these events, and share a Jewish response from this week’s Torah portion, Naso.
Lindsey shared with me that since this tragic event, she has not been able to eat, sleep, or study. She just wants to return home, which she will do soon, to the comforts of parental love and protection. At the same time, Lindsey shared how unbelievably amazing her friends and the school have been. She spoke about the 20,000 people who gathered during an interfaith memorial service to honor the six who had died. She said she had never seen anything like it, so many people pouring out their love and support.
Rabbi Evan Goodman from UC Santa Barbara Hillel, spoke the following message during the memorial service. “…that which unites us is so much stronger than whatever divides us. In this time of grief and pain and questioning we must draw closer to one another than ever before. There is darkness in this world. What can we do to begin to dispel this darkness? The 5,000 candles on Saturday night shone brightly from UCSB to Isla Vista. The loving embraces, hugs given freely to friends as well as strangers, brought more light into this world. What defines us as human beings, is not the tragedies we face, but how we choose to respond to those tragedies… How will we help make this world a better place? How will we bring a little more light into a place of darkness? May each one of us be a blessing to each other, and by doing so, may we give the lives of these 6 precious souls everlasting meaning and purpose.”
I told Lindsey that what happened doesn’t make any sense, and that I had no answer about why this happened. I did share with her my experience of loosing a classmate to a bombing in Israel during my junior year in college. And I shared my love and admiration for her, and everything she stands for and believes in, the power of community, the love and kindness of family and friends, the strength of Judaism in her life. I implored her to take care of herself, because her life matters, as each of our lives matter.
The idea of being a blessing to each other speaks to me. This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most powerful blessings in Torah and all of Judaism. It is collectively called the Priestly Blessing. Aaron and his sons offered these words to the Israelite people: “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s light shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s presence be with you and grant you peace.”
We hear this threefold blessing at the most sacred moments in our lives – when we are born and given a Hebrew name and are welcomed into the Covenant of the Jewish People, when we are called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah, and when we stand beneath the chupah in holy partnership with another human being. We hear this blessing during major Jewish holidays, and we bless our children with these words at the Shabbat table.
The simplicity of this blessing points to its eloquence. The blessing builds to “a spiritual crescendo” (Joshua Aaronson). It is comprised of three verses of three, five, and then seven Hebrew words, each verse adding a layer of meaning and insight to the previous one. Our tradition, it will probably not come as a surprise, has gone to much length in trying to understand the meaning of each verse, of each blessing.
May God bless you and keep you, or literally guard you. According to our tradition, this is a blessing for abundance, for material goods, and for protection for all that we have and hold dear.
May God’s light shine upon you and be gracious to you. This is a blessing for God to enlighten us with Torah, with instruction, wisdom, and understanding, and that we may share this wisdom and understanding with others in the form of grace and kindness.
May God’s presence be with you and grant you peace. This last phrase is unique in its straightforward appeal for peace. For one may have prosperity and all other blessing, but if there is not peace, it is all worthless. In other words, no matter what, no matter what we may face, we must try to seek peacefulness or wholeness, the true meaning of shalom.
This blessing is almost more of a threefold wish. It can be an acknowledgement of what we have, of all the blessings in our lives. But given that these words of blessing accompany us as we progress through the different stages of our lives, it feels more like a wish, a powerful affirmation of hope for the future. A wish for continued protection, wisdom and grace, and peace throughout our days. Given all the uncertainties in life, it is an audacious and bold request.
It is a profound honor as a rabbi, an honor that is too hard to fully describe, to be able to bestow these words of blessing. Clergy sometimes have a way of pointing out the boldness and yearning underlying this prayer when we bless people. Before offering this prayer, I often find myself telling young parents holding a baby or a wide-eyed 13 year old, “I now have the honor of blessing you with these ancient words of our People. I hope this is a blessing you will hear many more times throughout your life.” When I express this sentiment, I feel the deep sense of urgency. For we fervently pray that protection, understanding, and peace will accompany us all of our days.
Although originally recited by the Priests, and later on by rabbis, nowadays in our more egalitarian, less hierarchical Judaism, the ability to bless one another is open to everyone. We can all utter these words, or other words of blessing. Blessing is an act of giving, of making a connection, of expressing faith and caring toward a fellow person. We can each bless and be a blessing.
I will also share with you that it is a profound honor to offer these same words of blessing as a parent each Friday night. Since our boys were born, Micah and I have placed our hands around our children and blessed them with the words of the priestly blessing as we begin Shabbat. We started in the hospital, and it is a tradition we have carried on nearly every week, even when we are rushed or tired. They have come to expect it. We call it, the special Itai and Yonah blessing. I sometimes wonder how they will react as they grow older, and move into their teenage years. Will they still look forward to it? Will we receive the classic teenage eye-roll? Even as they seek more independence, will they appreciate the declaration of love and protection? I wonder this, especially as I look out at our teens tonight who are about to become Confirmed. You will hear these ancient words chanted in a beautiful melody by Cantor Kari and bestowed upon you by your rabbis next Tuesday night on Erev Shavuot.
And I wonder about the impact of these words for all of us. For isn’t this threefold blessing what we all ultimately pray and hope for? For ourselves and for one another? That God may bless us and keep us close. That God’s light may shine through us and reflect kindness. That God’s presence may be near us, so we may feel peace throughout our days.
I will share one other personal connection to the current sadness on a college campus and all the surrounding circles of care and comfort. Nowadays, anyone can give words of blessing, even on social media sites such as Facebook. The following was written by a sister to her younger sister, another family I am close with from the congregation I previously served.
“I don’t usually publicize my opinions on Facebook but in light of recent events I do have something to say. I think the most important thing is to think of the families that lost loved ones and to remember how easy it is to lose the ones we have. Appreciate every second and live every moment the way you truly want to. My little sister lives in the alpha phi house that the shooter targeted. She was at work that night he came knocking on their door holding guns. Thank you God thank you universe thank you luck thank you whatever it was that kept her away from her own home that night. My heart goes out to all the families that lost loved ones and all the people simply affected. Maya, I love you and would do anything for you.”
May God bless and keep all of us. I hope you will permit me to take a moment to bless all of you with these words from this week’s Torah portion. “Yevarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha. Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka. Yisa Adonai panav eilecha, v’yaseim l’cha shalom.” Amen.