Yet, no matter how many years I live, I will always remember my bar mitzvah and the Torah portion that became my personal property on that auspicious day. You'll have to pardon my possessiveness for Parshat Naso, which I have felt since that Shabbat morning at Encino's Maarev Temple some 47 years ago.
I have noted hundreds of b'nai and b'not mitzvah who have stood proudly beside me on the bimah and declared "welcome to my bar/bat mitzvah, at my synagogue, as we study my Torah portion and my haftarah on my Shabbat." In a real sense that is exactly what we rabbis, educators, and proud parents want our kids to feel: That the Torah, Shabbat, the whole package, is their intimately personal possession and legacy.
So each year, as I pass this way, by way of Bamidbar and Shavuot, and confront anew the unique concepts of the Book of Numbers, chapters 4:21-7:89, it is much like visiting an old friend. I still remember my entire haftarah, by heart, mostly due to the fact that I hold on to that stuff, not to mention the 78 rpm vinyl disk that was my loyal and dedicated bar mitzvah tutor. And, of course, each annual reunion with Naso reminds me that yet another year has passed, and that there are hopefully more uphill inclines and downhill grades ahead.
What did I think was important about Naso in 1960? I remember not truly understanding the concept of the nazir, the person who made a solemn oath to abstain from worldly indulgences as a means to affirm one's faith in God. That's a tough challenge for an early adolescent, even one who claims to be a fountain pen. I did like, however, the fact that the haftarah from Shoftim (Judges) spoke of the birth of the well-known nazir Shimshon, Samson of Delilah fame.
But then, there was the gift. Arguably, one of the most beautiful, most powerful, most utilized and appreciated passages in the entire Bible. And it was in my parasha. The threefold priestly benediction, or Birkat Kohanim, was a natural, the best theme for a bar mitzvah speech I could have ever hoped or prayed for. And though I do not specifically remember, I surely hope that I mentioned these exquisite blessings in my speech.
But like so many other things, it was only in later years, as I passed other milestones and life-cycle events, and embarked on my rabbinical career, that I began to truly appreciate the beauty and depth of this soulful blessing that has adorned myriad significant, sad, but mostly happy moments. A birth, a birthday, a wedding or anniversary, a graduation and countless other sacred moments have been enhanced and sanctified by these words which have sealed the most memorable experiences of our lives.
"Y'vare-ch'cha HaShem v'yish-m're-cha" (May God bless you and keep you). The ancient commentators, of course, always intent on extracting every morsel of meaning from the divine text, work hard to uncover the special meanings of every word of this prayer. The ancient midrashic collection, Sifrei, suggests that the two verbs in this first line of the blessing refer to different kinds of divine gifts.
"Yevarechecha" ("May God bless you," in this interpretation) refers to money, or material gifts. Later commentators elaborate, however, that material wealth without inner peace is no blessing at all. So this blessing is a prayer for material comfort, along with the inner peace to recognize blessing, to know that you have all you need.
"V'yish-m'recha" (May God keep you) refers to divine protection from physical danger. As such, this first part of the blessing asks for basic safety and security, and perhaps, the awareness to recognize the source of all blessing. It might best be rendered, "May God bless you with all you need, and shield you from harm."
"Ya'er HaShem panav ay-lecha vee-chu-neh-ka" (May God show you favor and be gracious to you).
The first phrase asks God to shed divine light on your face, to make your face radiant with blessing and holiness. The latter verb "vee'chu-neh-ka, comes from the word "chayn," a word that is probably best translated as "grace." It is that quality of lived experience when something beautiful shows up for absolutely no apparent reason.
It is when wonderful things happen unexpectedly, astoundingly, that they point to the hand of a higher power. My friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff expresses the sentiment of this blessing as "God giving us even more than we deserve."
Finally, God is asked to bless you with peace. Not surprisingly, peace is the climax of the prayer. Without peace, one cannot enjoy any of the other blessings. Without peace, one can not focus upon or recognize the Source of all blessing.
"Yisa HaShem panav ay-lecha, veyasem lecha shalom" (May God face you with love, and give you peace).
For all those sacred moments, memories and hopes, may we continue to remember God's precious blessings, first conveyed by the priests, then by rabbis, loving parents and many others who all feel privileged to bestow these hopes and promises upon a world that needs them now more than ever.
Mark Hyman is rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.