One of the most powerful and poignant memories from my childhood is the when my parents blessed the children. This blessing is often said on Friday night as part of the pre-dinner welcoming of Shabbat, and in my family my parents would gather my sister and I close to them and recite the words in Hebrew, their hands on our heads. Something about that weekly moment makes it stand out more starkly than almost any other childhood ritual with which I was raised. My wife and I also recite this weekly blessing over our children, and they seem to love that moment in time when we are in a bubble as a nuclear family.
The words of that blessing are found in this week’s Torah portion, Naso:
(22) The LORD spoke to Moses: (23) Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: (24) May the LORD bless you and watch over you. (25) May the LORD make His face shine to you and be gracious to you. (26) May the LORD raise his face to you and give you peace.
(22)וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (23)דַּבֵּ֤ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶל־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֥ה תְבָרֲכ֖וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָמ֖וֹר לָהֶֽם׃ (24)יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ (25)יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ (26)יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
These words are not simply those of a parent to a child, and in fact they play an important role during the high holidays in many communities, when the Kohanim bless the entire congregation using the same formula. There is a tradition that during this moment the congregation does not directly at those reciting these words, with families shielded by adult tallitot, perhaps for fear that exposure to the divine could be overpowering.
Kohanim performing this blessing put their hands in the shape of a shin (the first letter in Shechinah, the name for the presence of the divine in the physical world, and Shaddai, another name/attribute of the divine) during this recitation, and this gesture made its way into popular culture through the Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy, who portrayed the Vulcan Spock on the immensely popular original Star Trek, adopted the gesture for the traditional Vulcan farewell, “Live long and prosper,” which he thought did keep some of the meaning of the original blessing.
We also recite this blessing every time we publicly repeat the Amidah.
Blessings can take many forms, and don’t necessarily require the ancient ritual formulae to be meaningful. In fact, at Gesher it is not uncommon to find students engaged in the practice of writing their own blessings or other prayers. When you consider the words above, are there aspects that resonate for you? What blessings do you wish to offer those you love? What blessings do you wish to receive?