I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of blessing. I always wanted to be the one who said the magic formula over the bread which suddenly meant we were allowed to eat it, and I always got excited about being chosen at services to hold the Havdallah candle on Saturday nights. Growing up, I knew that we always blessed inanimate things, and our blessing them somehow turned them from mundane into something extraordinary. But I never really understood how or why we could bless people. And I’m not talking about the “bless you” after a sneeze, an old custom which dates back to when serious illness without modern medicine was usually terminal. What does it really mean for me to bless you or for you to bless me?
This week we read parshat Naso, the second portion in sefer Bamidbar. It deals with another census of the people, laws about purities within and outside the camp, a biblical lie detector test for a woman suspected of engaging in adultery, and explanations of what it might mean to be a nazir, a special person with deep self control. In the middle of all of these case studies lies Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly blessing, which is perhaps one of the best known sections of our text. This is the blessing that God instructs Moshe to tell his brother Aaron to use when the priests bless the people.
Chapter 6 verses 24-26:
24: May God bless you and guard you.
כד יְבָרֶכְךָ ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶך
25: May God shine God’s face upon you and show you graciousness.
כה יָאֵר ה ׀ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּך
26: May God lift God’s face upon you and place upon you peace.
כו יִשָּׂא ה ׀ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם:
The first question that the commentators ask is about this notion of people blessing people. We’ve seen throughout the Torah that fathers have “blessed” their children with the blessing of the first born, but never have we seen this explicit blessing from God for the priests to use on the people. The Rashbam, a medieval commentator from the line of Rashi, understands this section of text not as the priests giving a direct blessing to the people, but rather as the priests invoking God to bless the people and God responding by giving this blessing. Rashbam implies that blessing is something that we are deserving of, and in the right moment and at the right time, blessing is something that can bring us a moment of unique peace.
Over time this blessing has taken on various meanings. It is said most often on Friday evenings as Shabbat comes in and parents bless their children, but it is also used during a wedding, brit milah, and Bar or Bat Mitzvah, as the rabbi or clergy person blesses the celebrant(s) on their new journey. These moments denote a sacred moment in time and sometimes a significant change in life.
If you’ve come to our school Shabbat celebrations, you know that at the end of the blessing of the children when we say Birkat Kohanim, I encourage everyone to bless not only the children but also the parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends. Just as ordinary candles become a divider of time, the wine becomes sacred, and the challah becomes edible, so too when we bless another person, it takes our relationship to another level by including a hint of the divine. This blessing between human beings creates a moment in which God’s creations are sharing love, peace, and light between one another. May we be blessed with a lifetime of those moments.
1. Bamidbar literally means “in the wilderness,” but the root is also the same root as the word for speech, daled-bet-reish. How can speech or blessing lift us up out of the wilderness and into a new phase in time?
2. Two parts of Birkat Kohanim mention God’s “face.” How do you interpret God’s face?