50th Birthday Blessing and S’mikha for Jake Birnberg
given by Rabbi Diane Elliot
24 January 2010 9th Sh’vat 5770
Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches us that the blessing of parashat Bo is freedom. In this week’s parashah, the Israelite people take the first step out of the narrow spaces of Mitzrayim and become conscious journeyers—not simply released from bondage, but free to move into direct relationship with the Holy One, the Great Liberator. Engaging in that relationship means choosing/being chosen to serve the One, the Whole, the Holy, above all else. Our very freedom, then, depends on entering whole-heartedly into a new kind of servitude!
Jake, as you celebrate your 50th birthday, I want to acknowledge that over the years I have known you, I’ve watched you take on this blessing more and more. And with every blessing, as Reb Shefa teaches, there also comes a core spiritual challenge. The challenge of Bo, with its promise of passage to freedom, lies in the call to cultivate a rich inner life and to be willing to face, again and again, the obstacles that inevitably arise when one commits to a life of inner-ness and depth. These obstacles may appear to be external, but ultimately they point us back to the thickenings, the wallings-around, the grippings of our own heart. Like the heart-hardenings of Pharaoh, these constrictions catch at us, pulling us backward again and again to the place of narrowness, even as we walk the path toward freedom.
I bless you that this year of turning 50 will be for you a year of great opening, of ever-increasing spaciousness of body, mind, and spirit. I bless you that in it, just as in the Jubilee Year proclaimed to be celebrated every 50 years in the Torah, your true inheritance, the land of your soul—parts of which, through pain and hardship and unconsciousness, had to be ceded to others—will return to you. I bless you that you will be able to rest upon your “land” in peace and security, to inhabit it grace-fully, knowing that ultimately it is not yours to own at all, but the province of the Holy One of Blessing.
And so, at this auspicious time, I want to offer you a new title, both in acknowledgement of the journey you have made, and in support of the journeying still to come—the title of Rav Ha-Torah, a Teacher of the Torah. I have watched you grow in your ability to absorb and translate the deep teachings of our Torah, to guide others into a visceral experience of those teachings, and to channel into community both the blessings and the challenges inherent in them. The title, Rav Ha-Torah, both acknowledges all the work you have done, and is also a call to the growth, a gateway to future service, as you focus upon this new decade of your life. For a smikha, a passing of the torch, is but a beginning, a mandate to accept a new level of presence, truth, and response-ability in the world—as a Jew and a human being. May you be blessed with the health, the parnassah, the love, the strength, and the holy khutzpah to live in service of the Great Freedom, this year and every year. May you accept this s’mikha, this passing of a lineage of teaching and learning, as a challenge to continue your trek in the wilderness, the midbar, in search of a Torah of freedom you have not yet known, but whose promise leads you forward—to declare its Truth in every way and place that you can, and to embody that learning in your own life, ever more fully, ever more lovingly.