Naso, The Blessings of Living and Giving: Y’varechecha as a Guide
Cantor Deborah Katchko Gray
Hearing my father, Cantor Theodore Katchko of blessed memory, sing the Y’varechecha, the Priestly Blessing at the end of every Friday evening service, began my love affair with this prayer. His majestic voice soaring over the congregation, singing with deep belief and love for every word through the beautiful music remains the musical memory that inspires me to this day. His blessing of the congregation was part of every service and ended the formal services of the Conservative pulpits he served, accompanied by organ with the rabbi interpreting the translation.
I was thrilled to see that this parashah, Naso which contains this blessing was available for my reflections. That is also a blessing!
My father’s voice, singing this particular prayer, has stayed with me and guided me throughout life cycle events as well. He sang it at my first wedding, every bris of my four sons, and although he passed in l997, a recording from a bris became a powerful moment for subsequent simchas–I had his voice sing this blessing at each of my son’s Bar Mitzvah services and my second wedding to Dr. F. Scott Gray, and I was privileged to sing it at my sons’ Aaron and David’s wedding. I sang it at a triple baby naming of three precious granddaughters recently and felt the power of this blessing on our family.
It was requested at a family Shabbat dinner by my son Aaron, wondering, “Are we still doing the blessing of our children?”
“Of course we are!” His asking me to sing it and bless his daughter was a magical moment where I knew this tradition was valued and would continue.
The recording of my father singing it was played when I was honored at my temple for my 10th, 13th and 18thanniversaries, and will be played when I retire at my 25th year in my pulpit in 2024 in Ridgefield, Conn. It is impossible to listen to my father at these moments and not weep, so I don’t worry anymore about that. I just weep and remember his powerful spiritual voice and let it wash over me like the sea of tears that are flowing.
While the Birkat Kohanim was an honor bestowed on the Kohanim, the High Priests at the Temple in Jerusalem, it is a blessing that has become part of the fabric of Jewish life; synagogue, and home. While rabbis and cantors offer this blessing at life cycle events and services, it is the parents blessing their children that I find most moving.
What greater joy can there be than to wish your children to have a beaming and joyful light in their hearts and peace in their lives? As we travel this bumpy road of life, having this blessing to offer and receive is a powerful signpost.
I have always thought that it is impossible to become an adult without experiencing loss and pain, tragedy and suffering. It is just part of life. We are all the “walking wounded.”
The blessing of Y’varechecha reminds us that G-d can give us strength, cast a heavenly light of hope, and offer us the gift of shalom in our hearts and souls, if we are listening and open to it. There were many times in life when I needed that lifeline. A disastrous first marriage, blessed with four amazing sons, but a tragedy of his serious drug addiction, mental health struggles, resulting in prison, financial complications, even food insecurity are a part of my “walking wounded” history. I could not script this, and yet it happened.
Knowing that it could always be worse, having studied seriously with Elie Wiesel z”l during college and beyond; seeing an example of life and hope rising from the ashes, stayed with me during those dark years. Elie Wiesel showed us by example how to overcome tragedy and be a beacon of light and peace, always grounded by our teachings and traditions. Learning from him that the act of holding a prayer book was a holy blessing helped me see the possibilities beyond the darkness and fear of the moment. Having my father’s voice singing the Y’ivarechecha in my kishkes–my guts–brought me strength and comfort.
May G-d bless you and keep you
May G-d cause a light to shine on you and be gracious to you
May G-d lift you up and bring you peace
The traditional translation is from the Hertz Chumash (my grandmother Rae Epstein z’’l studied with Rabbi Hertz in England). I’m aware the language is dated, but it is elegant and historic.
Numbers VI 24-26:
The Lord bless thee and keep thee
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
Offering a blessing of peace to our congregations, and to our families is a blessing in itself. While we bless others, we are also blessing ourselves. It’s the giving that comes back to bless us, and there is no greater blessing that having children ask to be blessed.
As I look ahead to my retirement, I hope to continue to bless my family and feel that blessing come back to guide me. It all began with my father’s voice for me, and these powerful words found in Parshat Naso.May we all be blessed with the light of G-d, and peace in our lives.
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray serves Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties. A fourth-generation cantor, she is founder of the Women Cantors’ Network and author of Prayerful Creations–Creating a Swedish Weaving Tallit, and Katchko–Three Generations of Cantorial Art. Her 20 recordings include Passover Seder Songs, Hanukkah Songs of Hope and Light, Kindersongs and Jewish Soul. A student of Elie Wiesel, Cantor Katchko-Gray is working on a book, Class Notes: A Lifetime of Learning with Elie Wiesel. She’s a proud wife, mother and bubbie, and you can learn more at www.cantordebbie.com