At the heart of this week's Torah portion is God’s blessing of peace that we continue to pass along today in synagogue and at home during Shabbat.
“May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift God’s face to you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 24-26)
This is the blessing that is found in the heart of this week’s portion, Naso. God asks Moses to tell the priests that it is these words they should use to bless the people of Israel.
There are many things we can learn from this blessing about how to pass on a blessing from God.
Who gives the blessing? Jacob Milgrom, in his JPS commentary on Numbers, emphasizes the source of the blessing: “The blessing issues solely from the Lord; the priests’ function is to channel it. This point is made emphatically clear by the threefold use of the divine Name in the blessing formula itself.”
Although in the biblical context this blessing is given through the priests, today it is given both through the Kohanim in synagogue and by parents to their children on Friday night at the Shabbat dinner table. When it is offered in synagogue, men from the priestly tribe remove their shoes, have their hands washed by the Levites and stand before the ark to bless the congregation under their prayer shawls and through half-opened hands. Rabbi Louis Jacobs offers a beautiful interpretation of this last custom in The Jewish Religion: A Companion: “The Kohanim then raise their hands and arrange the fingers so as to form ‘windows.’ The idea behind this is that the blessing proceeds from God as if He is sending it through the apertures of the hands — a symbolic way of expressing the idea that God’s blessing is present even when He hides Himself, so to speak.”
By contrast, when parents give this blessing to children, they lay their hands on their children’s heads. The blessing in the synagogue comes from underneath the prayer shawl and behind the hands — the blessing is present, but we don’t always see or feel it. Perhaps the laying on of hands that occurs in the Shabbat custom of blessing children symbolizes the hope that a parent’s love is always felt close by, even physically, and that through this love, God’s blessing can also be felt.
Who receives the blessing? Even with the Kohen giving the blessing to the congregation in synagogue, the grammar makes this as direct an experience as parents giving the blessing to their own child. The blessing is addressed to the “you” singular, not plural, so that each congregant in a group is individually blessed, even if there is no direct contact.
How should we give the blessing? The medieval commentator Rashi learns from the text the way in which one should give this blessing. Right before the text of the blessing, the Torah says: “Say to them.” Rashi brings this teaching from the midrash about the spelling of the word “say”: “The word אָמוֹר is written in its full form — i.e., with a ‘vav’ — indicating that they should not bless them hastily or in a hurried manner, but with concentration and with wholeheartedness.”
Although my own young children sometimes squirm away when I offer them this blessing on Friday night, I know many college students who call their parents on Friday just to receive it. We can all pass on God’s blessing of peace through wholehearted love and connection to each other. This Shabbat, may we do just that.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]