Let not the blessing of a commoner be light in your eyes
This week’s Torah portion features the Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessings. Not only were these blessings recited in the Temple, but they continue to be said even today by the Kohanim as they bless the congregation on Jewish holidays, such as Shavuot that has just passed. In Israel, they are part of the daily service.
The Kohanim stand before the congregation, shoes off their feet, talit over their heads and fingers arranged in a special manner. Spock-like in fact and that is where Leonard Nimoy, who was a Kohen, got it from. The Kohanim respond to the leader of the service, reciting each word carefully while their outstretched arms sweep from side to side as they bless the people before them.
It has become a custom for others to recite the Priestly blessing as well. Every Friday evening, before Kiddush, like numerous other parents at the Shabbat table, I give my children this self-same blessing. Back in the day, when the kids were small, I used to ask, “Who wants a blessing?” and my kids would all came scrambling up to me to be first. Now that they are older however, they sit in their places and I am the one who gets up and goes around the table and gives them the blessing. I am not sure how and when that changed but I am not complaining. My son, Yoni video calls from Israel every Friday morning and I place my hand on top of my phone at his virtual head and bless him.
The Hebrew for blessing is beracha, which is the exact same word but pronounced differently as the Hebrew word meaning a “pool”, a braycha. When we bless someone, we wish that they endlessly expand and grow for the better, the way a spring or pool of water continuously flows on and on. The very first time God communicated with Abraham He told him, “You shall be a blessing… and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through you.” The very definition of the Jewish people is to be an endless source of good and blessing for all of mankind.
There are three phrases that make up the Priestly Blessing:
- May the Lord bless you and safeguard you refers to the simple request that God should provide us with all of our needs and protect our things from harm or loss.
- May God shine His face toward you and be gracious unto you means that God should smile upon you and show His favor and grace to you.
- May God lift His face toward you and grant you Peace means that God will forgive your sins. Lifting ones face implies making an extra effort to look at and regard another despite the difficulty in doing so. And grant you Peace obviously means that God should give you tranquility in your life.
These three blessings express three levels of our relationship to God. May the Lord bless you and safeguard you means that first and foremost, we need our physical needs fulfilled. Without our basic needs taken care of, we cannot strive for anything higher in life.
The Talmud says that an extremely poor person is like a dead person. Those are harsh and seemingly insensitive words, but what the Talmud is getting at is that life is more than just having food, drink and shelter. Granted that without these necessities, we cannot think of anything else. But if our whole life is only about such things, what is it really? It is not much higher than that of an animal and this is certainly not why we were placed on earth – to merely fend for our material needs.
Incidentally, a “poor person” in this regard is not just the impoverished but anyone whose whole life is wrapped up totally in the material and the mundane. They too are dead-like if they live without any spiritual element in their lives.
Once this first stage of having our needs met is accomplished, we want God to smile upon us. The second blessing, May God shine His face toward you and be gracious unto you means that we wish for God to have an ongoing relationship with us and provide us with life’s blessings, beyond our basic needs referred to in the first blessing.
We can sense when God seems to be smiling upon us when our accomplishments and dreams start to become realized and we feel that our life is greater than merely paying the bills and fulfilling our obligations. Having “God shine His face towards us” expresses when we indeed feel God’s radiance, warmth and personal connection with us when He shows us His grace.
The word for grace in Hebrew is חן chayn and it means giving without any expectation of anything in return. When God’s shines His face upon us, we see the numerous and gratis gifts He showers upon us.
The third blessing, May God lift His face toward you and grant you Peace continues from the first two. As with any relationship, when two parties become close to one another, there is the ever-present chance at hurt and disappointment. This is the natural progression of any close relationship – the closer you feel to someone, the greater the opportunity to hurt that individual with a wrong act or word. And let’s face it, nobody is perfect and hurtful things will always be said or done.
Because of this, we ask that God forgive any wrongdoing and recreate the bond that we originally had. We ask that “He lift His face” up towards us from His downcast look of disappointment that He may have given us previously.
We all know that relationships that have worked through pain, disappointment and difficulty end up having a stronger bond than before. We also know that this new connection is more long-lasting, unifying and peaceful than ever before. And that is why the three blessings end off with the word Shalom – Peace. Fixing a relationship always makes it stronger and each party is more at peace with the other.
And so my blessing for all of us is that may the Priestly Blessing continue to works its magic and provide us, the entire Jewish people, and all of mankind, with all three levels of blessing and success.
May the good Lord be with you
Down every road you roam
And may sunshine and happiness
Surround you when you’re far from home
And may you grow to be proud
Dignified and true
And do unto others
As you’d have done to you…
But whatever road you choose
I’m right behind you, win or lose
Forever young, forever young