For those of you not present on May 26, I want to share with you the drash on Parashat Naso for my “farewell Shabbat” at Kol Shofar:
I love it that the last Torah reading on my last Shabbat at Kol Shofar
turned out to be the Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing.
How many times have I stood here and said these words?
To b’nei mitzvah kids? at weddings? At brises and baby-namings?
These 15 beautiful, powerful words
Are filled with reverberations of the countless times they have been uttered
in holy moments for our people
These words that we still say today are so ancient.
Even before any evidence we have of a written Torah,
we have amulets from the 7th century BCE bearing these words.
They were found in a burial cave in Jerusalem a few decades ago,
And offered evidence of our relationship to these powerful words
since ancient times.
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and to his sons:
Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May God bless you and protect you.
May God’s light shine upon you and grace you.
May God’s presence be upon you and grant you peace.
The words are simple but powerful.
Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom describes them as a “rising crescendo,”
as the words increase from 3 in the first line, to 5, to 7.
The syllables increase from 12 to 14 to 16.
It’s got the poetry and rhythm of kind of a Jewish haiku,
but with an increasing, overflowing blessing in each line.
The various commentators over the centuries unpack the three statements of blessing as referring to:
1st line – physical and material well-being
2nd line – spiritual blessings, such as shining upon us the light of Torah, or endowing us with the quality of grace (Rashi).
3rd line – brings it all together by blessing us with shalom, peace and wholeness.
These words are, of course, traditionally said by parents to their children on Friday nights, and in the egalitarian Jewish world,
it’s not just cohanim who offer these words of blessing.
Traditionally, however, these words were and still are, in many communities, pronounced by the cohanim, the descendants of Aaron and his sons,
on holidays, and in Israel, every day,
after removing their shoes and having their hands washed by Levites.
The custom is for the priests to utter these words while raising their hands
in the shape of the letter shin (for Shaddai) and while covered in their tallitot.
The congregation covers their eyes while these blessings are bestowed because going back to the Talmud, we are told not to look directly at the Birkat Cohanim because during it the Shechina dwells.
In Leviticus (9:23), when it says that the priests blessed the people
for the first time, God’s Presence did indeed appear.
So, we can’t look – because how can we possible see God’s Presence?
Of course, Leonard Nimoy did peek out from under his father’s tallit as a small child growing up Orthodox, and so got the idea for the Vulcan salute and the Star Trek version of the priestly blessing, “Live Long and Prosper.”
The raising of the hands while bestowing the priestly blessing,
known in Hebrew as Nesiyat Kapayim,
is interpreted in a beautiful way in Midrash Tanhuma:
The hands evoke the lattice in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs,
when the beloved says of her lover: “There he stands behind a wall,
gazing through the window, peering through the lattice.”
God is the lover, gazing at Israel through the lattice of the priestly hands.
But what is the nature of the blessing itself? Where does the blessing come from? From the cohanim? Or from God?
And how does it work? It is magic? Is it a request for a blessing?
or does saying it somehow actually bestow God’s blessing?
These are the questions I want to explore with you today.
Commentators have noted that in the language of the blessing,
the priests do not turn to God and ask God to bless the people.
Rather, they turn to the people and pronounce: May God bless you.
Or as verse 27 says, the priests place God’s name on the people.
So, what do you think? How does that work?
Where does the blessing come from? [discussion]
Look at Verse 27, this section about the priestly blessing
concludes with God saying that the cohanim will
“place My name on the people, and I will bless them.” The Torah makes it clear that the source of the blessing is not the cohanim, but God.
The priests are simply the channel, the vehicle, for the blessing to come through. They are the lattice through which God can gaze, so to speak.
The big idea of the priestly blessing, is that we are vessels for Divine blessing,
and I don’t mean just cohanim. Or rabbis. I mean all of us.
And this is what I want to say to you on my last Shabbat at Kol Shofar.
You all have blessed me.
The big Jewish idea of this blessing, so central to Jewish life over the centuries,
Is that we humans bless each other.
We have the power to bestow God’s blessing on each other,
To be vessels for Divine blessing,
Through our words, through our actions, through our presence.
We are the hands of God, as my favorite story tells it.
Or as the Torah says, we are mamlechet cohanim, a kingdom of priests, (Ex 19:6)
Like cohanim, we have the gift of blessing each other.
I know this because I feel blessed by you.
And how do we do it? And how do we bless others?
How are we vessels for Divine Blessing?
So, two last little bits of Torah to leave you with:
The bracha that the cohanim say before uttering the priestly blessing, even today, is: Baruch…asher kidshanu bikdushato shel aharon, vetzivanu levarech et amo yisrael b’ahava. You have sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, and commanded us to bless the people Israel with love.
It’s the only blessing for a mitzvah in which love is mentioned and even required.
The priest has to feel love for the person being blessed!
So, first: blessing a person is possible through love.
Secondly, Rashi explains about verse 23 where there is an apparent unusual spelling of the word “say,” when it says: “say this priestly blessing.”
Rashi explains where there is an extra letter vav in the word: Amor
“the word is spelled in full to explain – do not bless them in haste and distraction, eleh bekhvana u’velev shalem,
rather with kavana (intention) and with a whole heart.”
(like the name of our siddur!),
Rashi explains that people can bless people when we have the intention and whole hearts to do so.
So, our tradition teaches us that WE are vessels for Divine blessing
through love, through kavana and through our lev shalem
our whole heartedness.
That is how I have received your many blessings and
that is how I have offered them.
There is a cycle of blessing – of giving and receiving, that go hand in hand,
as some of us studied on Thursday – and I pray that the cycle of love,
of giving and receiving blessings will continue here in this amazing Kol Shofar community, and that somehow the blessings that I have received and given here will continue to be part of that cycle.
I feel truly blessed to have spent sixteen years of my life here with you.
Through wonderful times, through difficult times,
we have shared so many holy moments together,
far too many to possibly name.
But I want to name just 3 of the many ways you have blessed me
in our years together:
- you have trusted me and let me into your lives in your most intimate and vulnerable moments: illnesses, losses, your struggles and questions. It has been an honor to share those moments with you.
- You have seen me, gotten me, appreciated me and allowed me to feel safe being my real, wacky, “superfreaky,” full self with you.
- You have been real with me, opening your hearts and exploring Torah and life’s deepest questions with me, allowing us all to grow in our individual spiritual journeys and together as a community.
We have, as the Torah says here in our parasha,
Placed God’s name on each other, through our blessing each other in love,
with kavannah and whole hearts.
And your blessings, I will carry with me into the next parasha in my book of life.
I thank you for all the many, many, ways you have blessed me.
I am profoundly grateful.
I’d like to end with Birkat Cohanim, with our hands creating that lattice,
Touching each other, all connected,
with kavannah, whole hearts, and love, and
with the Lover gazing through the window at us.