כד יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. כה יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. כו יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
24 May G-d bless you and watch over you; 25 May G-d make His face shine to you and be gracious to you; 26 May G-d raise His face to you and give you peace.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 24-26
As we draw close to the end of this academic year, I am amazed to find that our electronic exploration of Pirkei Avot seems to be nearly perfectly timed to conclude as well. That said, I would like to take a week out from that study to share some thoughts about blessings, based on the Birkat Cohanim (priestly blessing) that is found in this week’s Torah portion, Naso.
I grew up in a household in which this blessing was offered to me and to my sister every Friday night by my parents. My mother had a demanding professional schedule (she was also the Head of a Jewish Day School), as did my father, and by the end of the week, both of them were ready for Shabbat. While other meals during the week might have been less formal, Friday night was holy, and included the traditional rituals and blessings. It was often just the four of us, and was an important time in our lives as children to connect together with our parents.
Well into adulthood, the practice of them placing their hands on my head and reciting the words quoted above was filled with love and meaning for me, and my wife and I have also adopted this tradition in our home with our children. It is impossible for me to hear these words without thinking about my maternal grandfather, Zaide Herbie, with whom I was lucky to have a close relationship.
He was a professional athlete and then a salesman, and loved socializing with friends, eating and drinking, and though he was not educated formally beyond high school, had a business savvy that kept his family housed and fed. He was active in the small synagogue they belonged to in Asheville, North Carolina. Often we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at that shul in Asheville, and I remember the moment during which my grandfather, as a Cohen, had to leave our seats and join the other Cohanim to go up to the Bima and offer the entire congregation the very same blessing that parents give children on Friday nights.
Though he was active and committed as a Jew, I never heard him talk about G-d. I have no idea to this day if he lived his life with a belief in G-d, and I’m not certain he would have discussed it with anyone if he did.
He lived to meet my wife and celebrate with us at our wedding, and about a year later age and illness began to take over his life. I was able to visit him in the hospital in Asheville just a couple of days before he died. I remember how shocking it was for me in my twenties to see this strong, vital man shrunken and struggling to move or speak. I fed him ice chips, and our communication was primarily touch and eye contact. After a while it was time to leave, and I had no idea what to say, so I kissed him on the forehead, said I love you and goodbye, and started to leave the room. Right before I walked out the door, I heard his voice, almost a croak, as he said, “God bless you,” and then I started crying.
That was such a gift, that blessing, and of course that moment has stuck with me. I don’t exactly know what moved him to express himself in that way towards me, though I am pretty sure he knew that those would be his last words to me, and he sure made them count. I still feel blessed by him, even though it has been twelve years since he died.
Blessing someone can be a very powerful statement, and most of us don’t do it often. This Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your loved ones about what words would make a meaningful blessing for you to give them, or for them to give you. Or you could try on the words above, and see how they fit.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,