Garrison Keillor’s “Birkat Kohanim”

The bar mitzvah boy’s mother quoted Garrison Keillor, his closing line from the Writer’s Almanac. (Made me very happy — I’m a misplaced Midwesterner whose family is mostly from Minnesota, going back 4 or 5 generations.) I’ve loved this line and was touched to hear her quote and drash it:

“Be well, do good work, and stay in touch.”

If he were a mother, she said, he might have reversed the last two. But this is our wish for you, she said, and here’s what it means (I’m paraphrasing):

  • Be well, physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically — healthy in all ways.
  • Make a difference in the world, and whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability.
  • And stay in touch with family and friends and community, but also with yourself.

And I thought: That’s parallel to Birkat Kohanim, the way that I translate and understand it! And I got to say so to the young man, because I always “bat cleanup” and speak last to the bar or bat mitzvah. (The basic understanding was given to me by a colleague when I was in my first or second year in Rabbinical School. He was a member of the junior or senior class who gave his senior sermon, or was it his junior sermon, drashing his father’s saying Birkat Kohanim when he left home in South America for rabbinical school in Cincinnati.)

So here’s what I said to the young man:

  • “Be well” — that means “stay safe. ” The first line of Birkat Kohanim is Y’varechecha Adonai v’yish-merecha: May the Eternal One bless you and protect you. We all need protection sometimes, even as we become grown-ups.
  • “Do good work” — because you have an adventure ahead! This corresponds to Ya’er Adonai panav elecha viy’chuneka: May God be a light and a companion on the journey, as you go out into the world and make your way as a young man.
  • “Keep in touch” — that’s wholeness. Peace. Yisa Adonai panav elecha v’yasem l’cha Shalom.

יְבָרֶכְךָ יי וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
יָאֵר יי פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
יִשָּׂא יי פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

And in case you’re wondering whether you can ever erase your screen, now that I’ve “written” a Hebrew name for God on it, the answer is yes