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Naso: Becoming a Blessing

When we bless another human being, what are we doing?  Are we simply wishing them well and hoping for the best?  Do we have special powers? One of the most fundamental blessings of the Jewish tradition is found in our parashah;  I speak of the priestly blessing.

God bless you and keep you. 

God make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you. 

God lift up his face toward you and give you peace.

While the sacrificial responsibilities of the priests, the Cohanim, are no longer performed, even today the Cohanim continue to bless their fellow Jews.  While in the diaspora, the priestly blessings are said mainly on special occasions like the holidays, in the land of Israel the priestly blessings are performed every day of the year.  Every Friday night many parents bless their children with these same words.

Much ink has been spilled throughout the ages describing the meanings of each line, what each section implies and what each of the sixty Hebrew convey.  However, a few elements of the blessing are abundantly clear.  The structure of the blessings moves from three words to five words to seven words, implying a notion of almost cascading plentitude and abundance.  They begin with blessings of outer physical abundance and security to culminate with blessings of deep inner equanimity and joy.  The sixty letters are reminiscent of the 600,000 souls that left Egypt, suggestive of a direct connection between the Blesser (God) and the recipient of those blessings (Israel).  Most importantly, God’s ineffable and holy name Y-H-V-H, is ensconced in the center of every line, serving as the ‘backbone’ of the blessing itself; it is as if the Transcendent symbolically descends, filling the space below.  The linguistic structure of the blessing is reflective of its purpose. Following the priestly blessing, the Torah states, “So they (the Cohanim) shall put My name on the Children of Israel…” (6:26).

The priestly blessing in the Torah are not just nice words to say, but they are clearly part and parcel of the functional role of the Cohen. Just as the act of sacrifice was understood as a means to channel God’s blessing into the world, performing the priestly blessings daily was understood to have spiritual power.   But how does that happen?  How do the priest ‘draw down’ the spiritual energy from above into our lives below.

On one level, it does seem almost as if the blessing has some ‘magical power’, and the recitation of these very words are the source of blessing.  Indeed, according to many, immediately following Aaron’s blessing of the people on the eight day of initiation, God’s supernal flame descended upon the ark (Lev. 9:22).  According to many, the unidentified blessing was none other than the priestly blessing (Rashi ibid.).   Thus, our section opens with the words “this is how you shall bless the Children of Israel, say to them (Numbers 6:23),” The emphatic formulations demands that one should say these exact words– these and not other words are critical.  One should not make up one’s own blessing (Rashbam ibid.)  This introductory verse of the priestly blessings has halakhic implications, as Jewish law stipulates based upon this that the chazan must call out each word individually, and the Cohanim must repeat word by word.[1]  Presumable, the idea is that the chazan plays a technical role, insuring the Cohanim say the right words.

Based upon all of this, is this ritual simply mechanical like bringing the sacrifices, or can we learn something deeper about what it means to bless?  The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Efraim Lunschitz, in his commentary on these verses, makes a claim that can fundamentally change our perspective.  What does it mean to bless someone else?  It means that I become a conduit through which God’s blessings are manifest; it is not about me any inherit power that I have.  Remarkably, for the kli yakar, the role of the chazan, citing the blessing word by word for the Cohanim, is not to ensure they do not make a mistake.  Rather, it is that each Cohen is like an empty vessel, and when the chazan recites the blessings word by word, the chazan becomes a ‘channel drawing forth from the Divine source of blessing” and filling the Cohanim with this selfsame blessing.  When the Cohanim then begin to bless others, they empty their full vessels into the empty vessels of the Jewish people.  Without the chazan, the Cohanim would not have the capacity to bless at all, regardless of whether they knew the words or not. To give a visual image, the chazan is like one who draws water from the spring.  He then takes the water and completely empties it into the water jug of the Cohen, who in turn empties that jug into the jugs of each Jews, providing the life-nourishing water.  Thus, each Jew is in essence not receiving the water of the spring. This act is performed fifteen times, once for each word of blessing.  The chazan is not teaching the Cohanim what to say or do; he is part of the drama itself!

If so, this Divine drama teaches us something fundamental about what it means to be a blessing.   To be a blessing one first needs to have the experience of being blessed themselves, of experiencing and seeing the Divine flow in their own life.  The Cohen must not at first feel entitled and deserving, but first must make himself into an empty vessel.   Only then will the Cohen be sensitized and realize all the blessings which he receives from God; he will be ready to receive.

At this point, full of overflowing gratitude, he then freely dispenses this blessing to all who stand before him.  While blessing, the priests cover their faces as not to be able to recognize those in front of him.  If he were to recognize them, perhaps he might decide is and who is not deserving of blessing.  The Cohen, having received the ‘spirit of God’ from another,  realizes that in truth he not the source of the blessing.  He is simply the water carrier.

It may be for this reason that the Torah is so emphatic that the Cohanim precisely say these words.  To make up a spontaneous blessing on one level is very authentic and unique.  On the other hand, it is person centered, reflecting my values and what I believe the one standing before me needs.  We do not know exactly what each person needs- only God knows that.  In reciting the blessing, we are invoking the presence of God to help them on all the levels that this person needs- physical and spiritual.

To be a blessing is to become a channel through which God’s blessings can manifest themselves.  To do this, we sometimes need to get ourselves out of our own way.  The priestly blessing is proceeded by its own blessing which the Cohanim are required to say; a blessing to say the blessing.  The end of this blessing reads, ‘to bless God’s nation with love’.  Every Cohen is required to make this blessing in a spirit of Love, because love is unconditional, freely received and given to others.

The first Jew in history, Abraham, is said to be blessed by God and become a blessing for others (Gen. 12).  Yet when Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac, he prays that God show him kindness and mercy in finding a mate.  If anyone is deserving of blessing, it is Abraham!  Abraham, the knight of faith, put everything on the line for God.  Doesn’t God owe him?  Yet, the rabbis tell us that Abraham’s servant knew that his righteous master would never state he is deserving of anything.  Rather, his servant invokes God’s quality of kindness, rooted in God’s love.  It is this same quality that the Cohanim are called to do as they bless the people.  They are to be like the empty vessel, receiving blessing from above, and they then are to do the same thing for others.

May all of us in our lives feel blessings, and freely give blessings to others.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Maimonides, Hilchot Tefilah u’Birkat Cohanim, 14:3.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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