Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: The Eternal bless you and protect you! The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you! The Eternal bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace! Thus shall they link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils. (Numbers 6:23-7:1)
Our people have been blessing each other for generations with the words of the Priestly Benediction. So commonplace are these words that it can be easy for us to forget their power-not just their importance in the biblical text, but also their significance in our own age. To this day, these words are used as a child is welcomed into the covenant of Judaism, when children are blessed each Shabbat, when a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah, when a couple sanctifies their relationship under the chuppah, and at other important moments of life cycle and liturgy. How did it become so simple to offer God's blessing?
Imagine the moment offered up by this week's Torah portion: the moment in which God tells us that we are empowered to give people blessings. Now imagine that when we use these words, God will indeed bless the people. As Rashi notes, "'And I will bless them.' 'Them' refers to the Israelites; in other words, 'and I will agree with the priests.'" Robert Alter, in his recent translation and commentary, furthers this point, "After the pronouncing of the threefold blessing, God's name, a kind of divine proprietorship, will be set over Israel, and God Himself will carry out the blessing" (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses [New York: Norton, 2004], p. 714). God, at this moment, offers a great power to humanity-the ability to ensure a positive future for another. For if this blessing has been uttered and God agrees, then the blessing is guaranteed. In essence, by saying, "May God bless you," the meaning of the words transforms to, "God will bless you." The recitation allows for the reality.
These words are powerful. They allow each of us to transform the ideas into realities for ourselves-or for each other. When these ancient words are voiced, they can break through the noise and chaos of the world so that we can each hear a still, small voice, telling us how to make these blessings become truths.
When we bless others with these words, we will that the blessing's recipients have all the good that they yearn for and protection from all the evils of the world. We will that they be enlightened with the wisdom of Torah and of the world and that they have grace to behave toward others kindly. We will that they find a relationship with a God who smiles at them and that they find shalom-an inner wholeness, despite the difficulties that they face.
And when we bless others with these words, the place in which we find ourselves becomes a holy place. We learn this lesson in the very next verse, when Moses completes the Tabernacle. Ibn Ezra connects these verses, noting, "For on the day that Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them, the dedication of the Tabernacle took place." Only after the people have been blessed could the structure that allowed for God to dwell among them be complete-the blessing allows for the dedication, and in essence is the way through which the dedication begins. This teaches a great lesson: holy community must precede holy space. At the same time that humanity is given the power to offer blessings, humanity is also given the additional power to transform ordinary places into holy ones. Sanctity is a matter of human declaration. The power is in our hands.
We have the power to offer blessings to God and blessings to others. We have the power to transform the lives of those around us. We have the power to make any place into a place of holiness in which God dwells.
By the Way
- You are our blessing
you are our strength
you are our future
we are proud of you and the choices you will make. . . .
Don't be afraid to follow your heart
don't be afraid to tell your truth don't be afraid to turn to your family
we are proud of you and the life that you will choose.
(Rick Recht, "Y'varech'cha")
- When the Rabbis would depart from the school of Rabbi Ammi, and some say it from the school of Rabbi Chanina, they would say this to each other: May you see your world in your life. And your end be for life in the world-to-Come. And your hope encompass generations. May your heart meditate understanding. Your mouth speak wisdoms. And your tongue whisper songs. May your eyelids seek justice before you. Your eyes light up with the Light of Torah. And your face radiate as the Radiance of the Heavens. May your lips utter knowledge. And your entirety rejoice from justness. And your footsteps run to hear the words of the Ancient of Days. (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 17a)
- Each one of us must play a part
Each one of us must heed the call
Each one of us must seek the truth
Each one of us is a part of it all
Each one of us must remember the pain
Each one of us must find the joy . . .
Each one of us must start to hear
Each one of us must sing the song
Each one of us must do the work
Each one of us must right the wrong
Each one of us must build the home
Each one of us must hold the hope . . .
It's how we help, it's how we give
It's how we pray, it's how we heal, it's how we live.
(Dan Nichols and Rabbi Michael Moskowitz, "Kehilah Kedoshah")
- Rick Recht's interpretation of the Priestly Benediction is meant for the more personal uses of the blessing, such as when a parent blesses a child on Shabbat evening. The Talmudic text offers another blessing that people offer. What additional blessings would you offer to another? Do these blessings change depending on the recipient?
- Is there a difference between the meaning of these verses when used during liturgical moments and when used personally?
- In light of the Dan Nichols song about the ways through which a community becomes holy, how can our actions determine a place becoming holy? Are additional acts needed?
- Is there a limit to the blessings that we can offer? To the places that we can bless?