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The Blessing That Changed Me #730

06/10/2022 05:29:14 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Nasso: May God bless you and protect you." Numbers 6:24

the Blessing That Changed Me


It was about 2:15 pm on a Thursday in my Grade 10 English class, when a seemingly innocent event exposed me to my first incident of anti-Semitism.

Joel Nathanson sneezed.

Perhaps it was allergies – after all, without air conditioning, during early spring, teachers would often leave the windows of the second floor open to catch the April breeze.

Without thinking, I pivoted slightly to my left­­ - caught Joel’s eye, said, “Bless you,” and continued writing my essay.

Suddenly, our teacher swiveled from the blackboard, narrowed her eyes, scanned the class of 30 students, and snarled, “Who said that?”

“Who said what?” posed one the students.

“Who said, ‘Bless you?’” Mrs. Walker replied.

I raised my left hand barely taking my eyes off the page.

“Get up,” she snapped. “Get up right now.” So, I did.

“Get out of my class,” she ordered. “I will not tolerate old country superstition in my classroom.”

“But, but…” I sputtered. “It’s something we say to someone who sneezes. My parents taught me that it’s the polite thing to do.”

“Maybe that’s the problem,” snorted Mrs. Walker, our short, grey haired English teacher who, as I later learned, was spiraling toward retirement. 

“Now, go to Principal LeRoy’s office and report yourself.”

Minutes later, there I was tapping at Mr. LeRoy’s door.

“What have you done, Huberman?” asked Mr. LeRoy, a 5’6”, stocky, balding World War I veteran, assigned by the Montreal School Board to manage our crumbling high school of 600 students, half of whom it seemed were Protestants and the other half Jews.

“Well, Sir, I said ‘Bless you,’ in Mrs. Walker’s English class.”

Mr. LeRoy slowly closed his eyes, put his closed fist to his forehead, sighed and then looked at me. “Just sit here outside my office until the end of the period,” he said.

“And don’t do it again.”

But never knowing when to quit, I persisted. “But Mr. LeRoy, I’m not sure what I did. I’ve never been sent to your office before - and now for saying, ‘Bless you?’”

Mr. LeRoy then proceeded to lecture me about how in the modern world - aka, the non-Jewish world - “we” don’t believe sneezes are signs of evil, requiring divine intervention.

“It’s something your upbringing may teach - but not here.”

“But Sir, really - I’m here because of a blessing?”

Mr. LeRoy looked at me silently for about 20 seconds - rolled his eyes and said, “Just sit outside my office for another half hour. And, as I said, don’t do it again.”

For the next 30 minutes, as I pondered the severity of my crime, one phrase continued to come up: “old country superstition.”

Later, Mr. LeRoy would seize upon our newly minted relationship and would eventually appoint me treasurer of the St. Laurent High School Student Council and chief of ads salesperson for our high school yearbook. 

Because, as our student advisor once confided, “I had old country spunk, and I must be good with money.”

Still, the idea of being reprimanded for a blessing remained with me. Was there some low-level anti-Semitism involved?

Yet, in some way, the incident made me consider the power of blessings, and perhaps reinforced a behavior that continues today: that blessings are not “old country superstitions,” but rather signs of good will.

My late mentor, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, would extend a shalom, boker m’vorach - “Good morning, wishing you a blessed day” to complete strangers who we would pass on the way to morning services when I visited him in Tel Aviv.

A blessing may come in words or through good wishes. It can include a visit to the hospital, or just telling those around us - our children, our grandchildren, our spouses, our parents, our friends, even strangers - how we wish the best for them.

We live in a world where it is so easy to feel lonely. But when we extend a message of “bless you” or compliment someone on something we’ve observed, we remind them that they are not alone and that they are valued.

In this week’s Torah portion, God asks Moses to direct his brother Aaron to bless the children of Israel with these words.

May God bless you and protect you.

May God deal graciously and kindly with you.

May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.

This triad has sustained the Jewish people for millennia --at home, under the chupah, in synagogues, on the street, in our travels, and in all places and spaces where we convene.

Blessings mark a change in our energy from inward to outward. And that elevates others and the world we live in.

The great Rabbi Abraham Twerski (1930-2021) noted that the people we love most are those who we give to. In so doing, by providing a blessing, we become part of them.

So, on this Shabbat when we read the timeless biblical blessing bestowed upon the people of Israel, let us always be reminded that each of us is a blessing.

Each of us has something amazing to contribute, and that blessings can play an important role in bringing out the best in each other.

On this, the Shabbat of blessings, let us take a moment to count our blessings. Let us express that love to those around us. 

For blessings are not “old country superstitions. Whether offered spontaneously from a high school desk, or through the positive words with which we surround others - blessings make a difference. 

They encourage. They heal. They energize.

Thank you, God, for the power of blessings. May we continue to bless each other, now and forever.

And bless you Joel Nathanson, wherever you are.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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