Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel
In this week’s Parasha, Naso, we read three lines of Hebrew that have become almost as holy as the Sh’ma itself, the Birkat Hakohanim, the Priestly Blessing. Traditionally, it is included in the blessing of the children around the Shabbat Table as well as other places in our t’filot.
Recently, I returned from the World Union Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Biennial in Jerusalem. I was joined by almost 35 delegates from our region. And, I have to say this that was an amazing experience. The theme of the Connections 2013 conference was Being the Difference. There isn’t one word to sum up the experience of the conference. The reality of being in Jerusalem as one community, of one kehilah kedosha (holy community) brings the notion and feeling of awesome, yirah, to the forefront.
The words of the Birkat Hakohanim (Nu. 6:24-26): “May God bless you and keep you, May God’s presence bring light to you and be gracious to you. May God lift up God's presence to you and give you peace,” embodies a different meaning to me at this meeting in Eretz Yisrael. As I stood next to Jews from South America, Singapore, Paris, Kiev, Johannesburg, and Melbourne, as we grappled with similar questions and issues facing our communities. We seek answers together. And, as Progressive Jews, we believe that we are partners with God, that when we read the words of the Birkat Hakohanim, we are not passive listeners, like children listening to parents, but as partners with God. So, we ask ourselves, how we can truly work to bring blessings to each other in the world? How we can bring light to places where there is darkness? And how we can bring peace to our communities and to the communities in which we live as well as Israel? These are difficult questions and seemingly impossibly answers.
What was clear from the many speakers we heard such as Ruth Messinger from the American Jewish World Service and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as Professor Irwin Cotler, former Attorney General to Canada and now advocate for political prisoners, was that our responsibility lies not only within our Jewish community, but also to help and defend those who are helpless and weak outside our community too.
A fascinating aspect of the conference was the opportunity for all of us to ‘be the difference!’ On Sunday afternoon, we had the opportunity to go out into the community and get involved. Along with fellow members of the Australian Progressive Movement, I chose to Keren B’chavod (the Dignity Fund): the Humanitarian Fund of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism – where we with 100 shekels each went into Machane Yehuda (Judah Markets) and bought grocery staples that we then packed into hampers. Keren B’chavod is the Reform Movement’s response to the growing difficulty of many Israelis to provide themselves the basic life necessities. However, the organisation goes beyond providing help for Israelis alone, as it provides food for families throughout Israel of all faiths during the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish holidays, to refugees and immigrants, families from S’derot and the south after the war. Interestingly, this program differentiates between “nutritional insecurity” which is found in Israel instead of “hunger” as hunger and famine which is seen in Sub-Saharan Africa – for example children with swollen belly. This program already does what Messinger, Jacobs, Cotler and so many others called us to do at the conference.
When we recite the Birkat Hakohanim, let us consider how each of us can be a blessing. In the words of Dr. Ron Wolfson ‘What gets us up in the morning? What inspires us to sacred and holy living? May each of us be partners to bring light and peace in the darkness that engulfs so many in our community and the community at large.