Author’s Note: I’d like to dedicate this series to the memory of my father, David Berkowitz, z”l, who was always an early and eagle-eyed reader. I like to imagine he is reading this in the heavenlyand hope that he’ll figure out a way to reach me with his follow-up questions.
“Be who you are
And may you be blessed
In all that you are.”
- Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings
Each year I gather our sixth-grade families for a session on the meaning of prayer. We spend so much of our time during the bet mitzvah process on the mechanics of fixed prayer that it’s easy to forget to teach students to pray in their own words and from their own hearts.
When I ask participants to share their prayer experiences, the discomfort in the room is palpable. The anxiety only intensifies when I present the session’s task: compose a blessing for each parent to give their child(ren) during the ceremony.
I imagine the reason for this reticence might sound something like, ”We express love for our children in countless ways. But bless them? Isn’t that your department? Even if we could bless our children, how do we find the words?”
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso II, God provides Moses with instructions on how Aaron and his sons—the kohanim (priests)—should bless the Israelites:
Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May the Eternal bless you and protect you!
May the Eternal make God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you!
May the Eternal’s face be lifted towards you [in favor] and grant you peace!
Thus, they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
The instructions seem direct, but the early rabbis struggled with the same questions that we do: Who are we to bless the people? Isn’t that Your department? Rabbi Akiva explains that the kohanim bless the Israelites before God affirms their blessing (Babylonian Talmud Chullin 49a).
Midrash Tanhuma imagines God telling the kohanim, “From the beginning I have blessed My people; from now on the blessings are transmitted to you. You are to bless My children.” This transition from divine blessing to human blessing began when Isaac and Jacob blessed their sons (Tanhuma Nasso 8-9). We can use this argument to give all humans the power and permission to bless each other.
While God gives the kohanim a script, the language is nebulous. Because the blessing is so sparse, it gives us a blank canvas for our own dreams and anxieties.
Various interpretations of the priestly benediction suggest that specific words could refer to abundance, protection, wisdom, or gratitude. Moreover, the blessing affirms that God will keep the covenant made with our ancestors and is present in our lives today (Sforno on Numbers 6:24-26, Tanhuma Naso 10, Sifrei Bamidbar 40-42).
Israeli Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz points to these blessings ascending from the material to the spiritual and ultimately to peace. But she also suggests that the third blessing is about putting the first two to use: “The whole of life with its bustle and tumult, its material wealth and spiritual attainments are only instruments to bring us nearer to [Divine] service” (“Studies in Bamidbar” 67, 73).
My favorite interpretation comes from Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Yehudah Berlin’s “Ha’amek Davar.” He suggests that the blessing is vague so that it might convey “whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with.” Likewise, each person should be blessed according to “everything that is in need of blessing, protection from whatever causes trouble” (“Ha’amek Davar” on Numbers 6:24-26).
As we prepare to bless our children, who knows better what blessings they need than themselves? Before we begin composing our blessings, I ask parents and students to anonymously answer this question: “What do you most want your child to hear?”
The students agreed that they wanted their parents to celebrate their hard work and persistence and acknowledge that they are moving into a phase of life that will grant them more independence. But most of all, they want to hear that their parents love them.
The parents’ blessings also had shared themes: pride in their children’s accomplishments and a deep love of who their children are. One parent wrote, “I love that you are stubbornly you,” which is the ultimate blessing for an adolescent! Here were some of our parents’ other blessings:
May you be appreciated for your many gifts.
May you live a life surrounded by friends and family.
May you have peace for yourself and increase peace among others.
May you have the strength to take on the world.
May you know that you will always have our support, no matter what.
May you continue to find meaning and comfort from Judaism.
May you live a simple life, free from fear.
May you see the beauty of the world, every day.
It is one thing to write or speak words from our hearts, but it is quite another to believe that we have the power to bless one another. Here again, we find reassurance from “Ha’amek Davar.”
Rabbi Berlin understands a word in the prayer, vichunecha—be gracious to you—to mean not only that our own prayers will be answered, but that “your prayers for others will also be accepted” (“Ha’amek Davar” on Numbers 6:24-26).
Our power and our permission to bless is hidden in the blessing itself.