I was moved to share the following piece by Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, Women of the Wall Executive Board member:

We are not supposed to mourn on Shabbat. But I couldn’t stop myself thinking about the sudden death of Shira Roth, a 20 year old girl from my community, while on a trek in Peru. I kept thinking of the unfairness of it all and what I could possibly say to the parents at the shiva. And I wanted to think about this week’s Torah portion and the connection to the priestly blessing. I didn’t want to be thinking about the sweet girl who grew to be the pride of her parents and who won’t be coming any more to our Purim parties.

But when I read the Torah portion – Parshat Shemini, I found both priestly blessing and reaction to inexplicable tragedy.

First Aaron blesses the people:

 “And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them.” (Leviticus 9:22)

Then both Moses and Aaron bless the people, and the people rejoice. And then,

“The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took a pan, and placed fire within, and put incense upon the fire. They brought before God a strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring. A fire came out from in front of God and consumed them; they died in front of God. Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what God had referred to, “I will be sanctified by those close to me, thus I will be honored by the entire people,”‘ and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Commentaries differ on why Aaron’s sons were killed and what exactly was their transgression. But to me, the most interesting words are the last:

“And Aaron was silent.”

Indeed, what is there to say after such a calamity? Parents are not supposed to bury their children! Only silence will do. And if you are going to speak, choose your words carefully. Perhaps this is one reason why the blessing of peace is recited by Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron.

My father is a Kohen. Ever since I was a small child I felt awash in a feeling of pride as my father padded up to the bima in his socks, and held his hands up under his prayer shawl – the one with black stripes and neckline intricately embroidered by my mother – to bless the congregation. I always wondered at my father’s voice as he recited the blessing – it seemed louder than all the others in the chorus. Only now I realize that every child of Kohanim hears their father’s voice as distinct!

As a daughter of a Kohen various sources interpreting Jewish law tell me that I may be exempt from the commandment to recite the priestly blessing, or I may be permitted, or I might even be obligated. The argument for female participation in the ritual hinges in part on the uncoupling of sacrificial priestly duties from the raising of the hands ceremony. For example, my father’s cataracts would certainly have disqualified him from Temple service, but it wouldn’t have prevented him from the raising of the hands ceremony and it doesn’t prevent him from dutifully blessing fellow worshippers in his modern day Orthodox synagogue.

In any case, it is neither the male nor the female descendants of Aaron who actually bless the community, but rather God. The tragic story of Nadav and Avihu stands as a warning that the priestly duties were a commandment from God and not a prerogative. How much more so today when our worship has moved from animal sacrifice to congregational prayer in the synagogue:

“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”
(Exodus 19:6).

Indeed, the priestly blessing is recited by parents to their children every Friday night before the Sabbath dinner and in some congregations the entire congregation recites the blessing spreading their prayer shawls over each other.

So on Sunday, April 24th at 8:45 am I will reclaim my heritage. I will join my sisters at the Western Wall and lift my hands as my ancestors have done for two millennia and I will recite:

יְבָרֶכְךָ ה׳, וְיִשְׁמְרֶך יָאֵר ה׳ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ יִשָּׂא ה׳ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

May the lord bless you and guard you. May the lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the lord lift up his face to you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:22-27)

Because life is too short and too precious to miss an opportunity to recite God’s blessing of peace.

Rachel Cohen Yeshurun,
Motzei Shabbat Parshat Shmini, April 2, 2016, Ma’aleh Adumim