"May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
May the Lord illumine your life and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord's spirit be upon you and grant you peace."
I have pronounced that famous blessing from the Bible thousands of times. But I’ll never forget my first. I was 23 years old, in my second year of rabbinical school and visiting my student pulpit. Student pulpit duty is a rabbinical school requirement intended to help you learn the ropes by serving a weekend a month in a small community that can’t support a full-time rabbi but still has enough Jews left to keep the synagogue doors open.
Congregation Beth Emet (House of Truth), with its 20 Jewish families hunkered down just south of the Oklahoma border in Sherman, Texas was my rabbinical boot camp. The concept of a rabbi was so new to the community that when I first appeared on the local radio station's Sunday morning religion program the proper, grey-haired Baptist woman hosting the show introduced me by saying: "This morning we have a very special guest. Rabbi Steven Leder, the Pastor from the Hebrew church. Pastor, share some scripture with us."
Sherman, Texas was a different world. Even the Jews seemed foreign to me. But I pressed on with services, tutoring the two Sunday school children, teaching adult education, visiting the Jewish business owners on Main Street, drinking ice tea with the temple president at the diner next to the pawn shop and the VFW post.
On Saturday afternoons I would visit the most elderly Jews in town who were too frail or sick to come to services on Friday night. Bill was one of those Jews. Bill had a bad heart -- so bad the doctors in Dallas told him he was best off at home, close to his oxygen and the telephone. His wife Betti was a Baptist who drove him to synagogue and sat with him every high holy day for the past 45 years of their marriage. But now her eyes were bad and even if Bill could go to synagogue, she couldn't drive him and sit by his side.
On my first visit to Bill and Betti's house I imagined I would chat a little about their lives, when they came to Sherman and why. Maybe tell them a little about myself, then wish them well and be on my way. At least that’s what I had planned as I stepped up on to the porch past the rusted chairs and knocked on the torn screen door.
It was the kind of a house that hadn't changed much inside for a lot of years; faded pictures, a black and white TV, an ashtray from a cruise to Mexico in 1973. Bill was in the kitchen fixing us some ice tea and cutting the sponge cake Betti had made the night before. The three of us sat around the Formica table, ate our white cake on orange plastic dishes, and chatted about this and that, just as I’d imagined it.
Life seemed hard for them, yet neither seemed to mind too terribly much. After an hour or so, my rabbinical duty done, I glanced at my watch, mentioned my next appointment and stood up to leave. Just as I was thanking them and promising to visit again next month Betti clutched my hand. Quick and hard. "Perhaps you'd like to bless us Rabbi?" she said.
Bill, weak and awkward, nodded. "Yes, bless us Rabbi," he whispered as the two of them held hands and reached for my own.
There we stood, grasping hands in that little Texas kitchen, in that little Texas town, the blind Baptist woman, the weak old Jew and the bewildered rabbinical student who only came for conversation. “A blessing,” I thought to myself, convinced that this was neither the time nor the place. “What am I supposed to say?” But there they stood, eyes closed, hands held tight, fervent, expecting. And to my lips came the words of the 3,000-year-old blessing spoken today all over the world by ministers, reverends, priests and rabbis in sanctuaries of magnificent marble and glass.
"May the Lord bless you and keep you.” There in that Texas kitchen. “May the Lord illumine your life and be gracious unto you.” Behind the tattered screen door. “May the Lord’s spirit be upon you and grant you peace.”
"Amen," said Bill and Betti as they opened their eyes, visibly moved, "Amen."
I’ve never forgotten that afternoon or that kitchen because I learned an important lesson there. We can all bring blessings to people who need them and those blessings require no great sanctuary, no marble, stained glass or microphone.
All a blessing takes -- all seeing God takes -- is a little time; a few kind words with two people locked in the silent struggles of life, seeking meaning and recognition amid their faded pictures. That’s all it takes as I walk the hallways of my father’s nursing home, looking into the eyes of his neighbors. That’s all it takes for the homeless man in the wheelchair I walk past every Wednesday morning after my breakfast when I hand him his own and say “God bless you.” Just a little kindness.
We could all manage that for the Bills and Bettis in our own lives; those we know who are lonely, those we know who are quiet, muted in their search for meaning, craving notice and love. Such a simple thing, these blessings spoken or transmitted in a touch, a smile, a call; making of us blessings ourselves. Such a simple thing; a little time, a few kind words.
"Amen," said Bill and Betti as they opened their eyes, visibly moved. “Amen.”