May God bless You and keep You.
May God enlighten you and be gracious unto you.
May God’s presence be upon you and grant you shalom.
The Torah ear knows no more spiritually poetic a passage, no more recognizable triplet, no more ancient words of blessing, than these. So powerful a blessing that the honor of Kohen in a traditional synagogue is centered around the recitation of these words. So moving a passage that the joy of reciting them is saved for those special personal moments of welcome and milestones.
But, when push comes to shove, who is actually blessing whom?
“Speak to Aaron and his sons,
Thus shall you bless the people of Israel…”
The blessing is then offered,
And then, the text states:
“Thus they shall link My Name with the People of Israel,
And I will bless them.”
It is quite confusing. Are Aaron and his sons blessing the children of Israel or is God blessing us?
There are four ways, at least, to understand this discrepancy.
Rabbi Ishmael said: We have learned about a blessing for Israel from the
Kohanim, but we have not learned about a blessing for the Kohanim themselves! Therefore, when it says, “I will bless them,” it means that the Kohanim will bless Israel and the Holy One of Blessing will bless the Kohanim (Hulin 49A).
There are times when the people who offer blessings need blessings themselves. Call it a sabbatical or a vacation, a kind word or small gift, or the satisfaction of knowing that the job was done well. Those who help us on our journeys, those who provide us with blessings, also need to receive blessings from God along the way.
Rabbi Akiba said: We have learned about a blessing for Israel from the
Kohanim, but we have not learned about a blessing for Israel from God! Therefore, when it says, “I will bless them,” it means that not only do the Kohanim bless Israel, but the Holy One of Blessing agrees with their actions (Hulin 49A).
No matter how confident we are in our lives, there are times when we want the approval of others who are more experienced than we are. Even for the
Kohanim, grown adults in the business of offering blessings seeking God’s approval provided them with a comfort and security. Each of us, as we grow, will at times turn back to those more experienced and seek their approval.
You might think that if the Kohanim wanted to bless Israel, then Israel would be blessed, but if not, then they would not be blessed. Therefore, the Torah says, “I will bless them.” This means that regardless of whether the Kohanim want to bless them or not, God will bless them (Sifrei Zuta).
Lest we leave the responsibility of blessing to capricious humans in whose favor we can fall into and out of at the drop of a hat, either way, God will bless us. The security of God’s blessings, no matter how people might treat us, is a faith that can support us when it seems that the whole world is against us.
The people of Israel gathered together and said before the Holy One of Blessing, “Master of the Universe, why do You command the Kohanim to bless us? What we really need is Your blessing!”
The Holy One of Blessing said to them: “Even though I said to the Kohanim to bless you, it is just like I am standing with them and blessing you!” (Tanhuma).
There is nothing like getting it direct from the source: Wholesale blessings. Like a young child who only wants Mommy to pour his juice even though Daddy is just as capable, there are times when we want the blessing straight from God and not through any kind of intermediary. In a world in which we rarely hear straight from God, Tanhuma teaches us that God is standing with us, as a silent/invisible partner when blessings exchange between people.
On this Shabbat, each of us stands as both a vessel and recipient of blessings with options at our disposal:
Take time to be blessed even in a world where you will be giving blessings. Be empathetic with other vessels of blessing and offer them your blessings.
Even though you are grown, know that it is ok to look back to those who have more experience and ask them for support and help.
No matter what people have to say about you or to you, build a personal relationship with God that is so strong that you can be with God no matter what the world throws you.
Know that God’s work is done by ordinary people, themselves vessels of blessings. Look at each person and see God’s face reflected in her eyes.
May this Shabbat be filled with blessings.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)