A BLESSING ON YOUR HEAD
Rabbi David Walk
One of the many awesome things about living in Eretz Yisrael is that we get blessed every morning. I love it when the Cohanim bless us. I can't get enough. I try to go over to every Cohen and say yasher koach (Sephardim look at me funny, they expect to hear chazak u'varuch), because I want to hear their traditional response of baruch tihiye (may you be blessed). I just want that extra helping of blessing. Look, it can't hurt. More, please. It's always fascinating to watch the Cohanim. Some are truly moved by this ceremonial request, while others are very nonchalant about it. I especially like going over to the lackadaisical ones; it catches them off guard. But there are a lot of questions about these blessings, which, coincidentally, appear in this week's Torah reading. The most important of which is: What makes them work?
However, first we must deal with the most obvious question about the blessings, which is: What is their content? The first blessing, 'May God blessed you and protect you (Bamidbar 6:24),' concerns material needs. We're asking for sufficient basics and for those assets to be protected from loss. The second blessing, 'May the Lord's countenance shine upon you, and grant you grace (verse 25),' is a request for spiritual growth, probably success in Torah study. The final blessing, 'May the Lord's face be lifted towards you and bestow upon you peace (verse 26),' is more complex. Some believe that this is a combination of the first two blessings, culminating in a blissful synthesis of physical and spiritual. Others have explained that this lifting of God's face is the opposite of the famous curse in Devarim called hester panim or God hiding from us. The blessings are a progression from 3 words to 5 words to 7 words, and from mundane requests to greater connection to God and heavenly spheres.
There is another well-known approach. Many authorities suggest that the three blessings represent the three Patriarchs. The opening idea of 'may you be blessed' reminds us of God's first words to Avraham, 'And I will bless those who bless you...and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you (Breishit 12:3). The second blessing, which says va'ya'ir or being enlightened reminds us of the line Avraham said to Yitzchak on the way to the Akeida, God will reveal (yir'eh, same letters, similar meaning). While Ya'akov embodies the blessing of shalom, because his family was shalem or complete, in that all his offspring stayed within the fold. Also, Ya'akov left his encounter with Esav, shalem (33:18). In this way, these blessings are a legacy from our beloved ancestors.
But the truly thorny issue which our parsha presents us with is: Who bestows the blessing? Initially, we're told, 'Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel (Bamidbar 6:23). However, later we're told, 'They shall recite My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them (verse 27).' Which is it? Well, actually both. The verb l'varech can have a number of meanings. It can be a prayer asking God to bestow the blessings, or it can mean God actually granted the bounties of the blessings. In this way each participant is contributing their own part in this process.
Perhaps, though, there is another way of explaining the role of the cohen in this process. The Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, 1530-1612), that great mystic, asked why the blessings were placed in the section of thanksgiving (modim anachnu lach) right after the blessing of the temple service (retzeh). He suggests that in the Beit Hamikdash the cohanim blessed the community right after the morning offering, and we are connecting those assignments. In other words, the cohanim are blessing us because it's part of their office. The efficacy of their supplication to God to grant us these boons is based upon them doing their job. It's part of what they are supposed to do.
Well, does this work for others? Should we be excited by blessings from sources other than cohanim? Perhaps, parents. Moms and dads are tasked with raising children, and if the requested blessings are in line with this responsibility, then it's only logical that these blessings should be effective. This reasoning is also in consonance with the rabbinic idea that God is one of the three partners in the raising of every child. These blessings are in line with the responsibilities of parenting.
Again, what about others? There's a famous rabbinic statement, 'Don't allow the blessings of a regular person to ever be taken lightly (Talmud, Megilla 15b).' If we should take these blessings seriously then they must have some effectiveness. But why should they? Because every Jew must feel responsible and connected to every other Jew (Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). Our fates are intertwined. If, God forbid, a Jew is injured anywhere, we should all be saying 'Ouch!' So, again, their blessings should be effective.
This brings us to our last question. If everybody's blessings are so good, why do we need the cohanim to bother with this ceremony, and, even worse, why am I impressed by it? Because the cohanim are the paradigms for this process. We observe carefully their demeanor and we work hard to emulate it. That doesn't mean we have to take off our shoes and wave a talit around. It's about attitude, content and intensity.
My daily excitement isn't only about receiving a blessing. It's about learning how to give blessings. If I'm moved by the experience of receiving this wonderful blessing, I'll be motivated to bless my offspring and others with the proper gravitas. I remember as a young rabbi being embarrassed when a student asked me for a bracha before departing the yeshiva. Today, I hope I know better. Acceding to such requests I've learned is very special and is a blessing on my head, too. May we all be blessed.