By Rabbi Jennifer Weiner
This week’s Torah portion is Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89.
May God bless you and keep you
May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you
May God turn toward you, and grant you peace
—Numbers 6: 24-26
In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron and his descendants, the kohanim (the priests), are given instructions on how to bless the community with the Birkhat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction. This blessing has become a part of our Jewish lives and recited at lifecycle events, Shabbat and holidays.
The meaning of Naso, “lift up” or “to take a count,” contains the spiritual essence of the one being blessed. There is a feeling of holiness in a moment when a blessing is offered with true intention, kavanah; a powerful and life-altering experience. Often when recited in public, the kohen, or reciter of the blessing, raises his or her hands to those around as if gathering in those in attendance. The words are inviting and provide a means of connecting with God, both individually and communally on emotional and spiritual levels.
On Shabbat, this blessing is said around the Shabbat table and during the Amidah section in the service. A parent will often place a hand upon the head of a child while reciting the benediction. From the point of children, it may seem like a moment longer until food is served. Yet from a parent’s point of view, saying this blessing over his or her child is a means of passing on Judaism and our community’s customs and traditions. It is tradition and a powerful moment taken out of a busy week to make a connection with the child.
The Priestly Benediction is also given by the kohanim in traditional congregations during the ceremony of duchanin on the High Holidays, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. In a traditional congregation, the kohanim stand in front of the congregation placing their two front fingers and thumbs together making a triangle while the other fingers form a “v” on both sides. That formation of the hands is known as “the window of God.” For this reason, as the kohanim say the blessing, the rest of the community looks away either by covering their eyes with their tallitot (prayer shawls) or by turning their bodies. Parents may use their tallitot to cover their children. Often the parents tell the children of when the same action happened to them when they were children. It is a powerful moment in the service.
A few weeks ago, Rabbi Bruce Aft and I stood on the bimah at Congregation Adat Reyim with the students and families of our third-grade class toward the end of their consecration service. Rabbi Aft and I offered the Priestly Benediction to those on the bimah and, by extension, to all those in attendance on that Shabbat. As we began, the students looked at us with excitement. As we made the blessing, there was a transformation and a spiritual experience.
Questions to consider:
Think of a time when you felt blessed. Why did you feel blessed? Did someone give you a blessing or was it due to circumstances that you felt blessed?
Now, think of a blessing that you would give to another person. How would you give blessing to that person?
What would you say in your blessing? Would you make the blessing in private or public?
Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is the rabbi educator at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield.