By Rabbi Tamara Miller
This week’s Torah portion is Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89.
Looking down from the women’s balcony, I noticed a group of men wearing blue-and-black- striped tallitot over their heads. The pageantry was unfolding and, like any other 9-year-old girl, I wanted to witness this ancient ritual — Birkat Kohanim — reserved only for the men who had inherited the prestigious priestly lineage.
A middle-aged woman with a wide-brimmed hat spotted me swaying near the balcony railing. She quickly and forcibly turned me around so I would not succumb to temptation. (At the time, I thought she wanted to save me from falling.)
I was literally turning my back on the kohanim, the priests. How could that be right?
“Assur. Kuk nisht” — It is forbidden to look, I heard the women nearby whisper. — “Tsk, tsk.”
While facing the back of the balcony, I could only hear mumbling and the clear voice of the chazzan call out “kohanim” after each verse. My desire to witness the spectacle in the sanctuary below escalated.
The text of the blessing comes from this week’s Torah reading, Numbers 6:24-26:
“The Lord bless you and watch over you. The Lord cause his countenance to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace.”
I learned later — yes, I did disobey and look — that the priests who perform the blessing first remove their shoes and raise their hands above the congregation. They spread their fingers apart in two groups and their thumbs are touch one another. Actor Leonard Nimoy made this gesture famous on the original “Star Trek” series.
The Zohar explains that this spreading of hands has a symbolic significance of celestial proportion: The priests’ hands are drawing down blessings from the heavens to protect their people, according to the work of Jewish mysticism.
Why not look? Here are two answers: According to Jewish law, the kohanim should concentrate on giving the blessing to the congregation as a whole. And congregants should focus on receiving the blessing. According to folk superstition, if you look, something bad could happen to you.
Through the years, I have witnessed men in the congregation covering their heads with their prayer shawls to avoid that chance glance. Some women use their siddurim, or their handkerchiefs to obstruct their views. Others have more self-control and lower their eyes while facing forward. I became adept at gazing above and below my siddur.
Now, though, I no longer need to sneak a peek. I stand solemnly, experiencing the awesome power of communal prayer. Perhaps it is propitious for blessings to be shrouded in mystery.
And yet, this liturgical masterpiece has limitations in an egalitarian society. Hereditary holiness conflicts with our democratic and meritocratic views. Do we even believe in the magic that the priestly blessing can evoke?
Even though I was scolded for my impudence as a young girl, I now love this special time when the threefold blessing is recited. Is it time to restore or initiate this traditional practice of inviting the priests to bless the community on a more regular basis? How can we make it more egalitarian? How can we create more blessing makers? And, finally, don’t we all need to be blessed and protected more often?
Rabbi Tamara Miller teaches at Temple Micah in Washington, serves as a chaplain at St. Elizabeths Hospital and officiates life-cycle events in Greater Washington.