For Memorial Day and Parashat Naso: Memory and Blessing

May 25, 2023

This year, the reading of the Torah portion of Naso, in which we find the words of what is known as the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) or the Threefold Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26), coincides with Memorial Day Weekend. The blessing reads:

Y’var-ekh’cha A-do-nai v’yish’m’recha:
Ya-eir A-do-nai pa-nav ei-ley-cha vi-chu-nei-cha:
Yi-sa A-do-nai pa-nav ei-le-cha v’ya-sem l’cha sha-lom          

May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s light shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you.
May you feel God’s Presence within you always, and may you find peace

(Translation from the Mishkan Tefila Shabbat Prayerbook, CCAR Press)

This blessing is the oldest blessing in continuous use by the Jewish people, and was even discovered inscribed into amulets dating back to before the 3rd century BCE. It is used in traditional synagogues by the descendants of the priests, the Kohanim, to bless the congregation. It is traditionally said by parents to children on Erev Shabbat after candle lighting; it is often given at B’nei Mitzvah, weddings, baby namings and brises. 

The words of the blessing themselves offer much to explore and ponder: What does it mean to bless, or to be blessed? What does it mean to receive light, grace, presence, and peace from the divine? But the confluence of the parashah which contains this blessing, and Memorial Day weekend, led me to wonder: What is the relationship in Jewish tradition between memory and blessing?

One common Jewish phrase when speaking of one who has died is: “May their memory be for a blessing.” In Hebrew, we say “Zichrono livracha” (May his memory be a blessing” or “Zichrona livracha”) (May her memory be a blessing).

A couple of years ago, reflecting on how Jews and others were grappling with the mass death of the pandemic, Sharrona Pearl wrote in Tablet magazine: “‘May their memory be a blessing’ speaks to both [the dead and the living]…[it] comforts the mourners and honors the memory of those they mourn. It is an active statement that people offer to one another, wishing something for the dead while at the same time acknowledging and maybe easing the pain of the living. It’s not a descriptor. It’s not a sharing of information. It is, itself, a kind of blessing. It’s a kind of injunction. It wishes not only that when the living think about those who have died, they do so with warmth and joy. It also offers the possibility that the lives of the dead serve as a blessing, marking the ways those lives have mattered and continue to matter in this world, even if they are no longer in it.”

On Memorial Day, established as a federal holiday in 1971 (originally, this day was “Decoration Day,” in memory of those killed during the Civil War), we are called to honor the memory of those who have died in service to the US Military. Deaths on a mass scale, caused by war (or by pandemic, or the epidemic of gun violence in the US, for example) can often become far too abstract – a number rather than the name, the story, the infinitely precious soul (likened by Jewish tradition to entire universe). With the phrase “May (their) memory be a blessing” we as Jews assert the significance of the individual human life, as its own unique and irreplaceable blessing. If the life and soul of a human being can continue to be a blessing after its life on earth, that means that it is our responsibility to those of us still among the living to make it so. We must continue to bring the blessings of that precious individual into the world – bringing forth in any way we can what they taught us, the values they held and emulated. To remember those who have died, from a Jewish perspective, is to enable the blessing that was their unique individual life to continue on, in and through us, and through the generations to come. 

This Memorial Day, may we take the time to connect with the life of at least one individual who died in war – whether this is someone we knew or didn’t know – someone in our family or beyond; let us do our part to bring the blessing of that person into the world. It is in this way that the soul is eternal. (Here is one resource to help connect with some individual stories from veterans of WWII). “The flame/light of God is the human soul” we read in Proverbs 20:27. Perhaps, in the Priestly Blessing, “May God’s light shine upon you” can be a reminder that we are both the recipients and the givers of God’s light, because God’s light is manifest in the soul of every human being. Like ones called upon to carry and protect the flame of a candle, we must carry forward into the future the blessing of the souls who have lived.

Rabbi Audrey Berkman