In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the people of Anatevka ask, “Rabbi, is there a blessing for the czar?” The rabbi pauses and then wittily replies, “A blessing for the czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the czar … FAR AWAY FROM US!” Yes, it gets a chuckle every time, but what the humor overlooks is the complexity of blessings.
I struggle with blessings. I’m often too busy or distracted to acknowledge the many reasons to be grateful, to appreciate the gifts: food, shelter, clothing, a family and community that I’m a part of, etc. When I finally do become cognizant of what I have, I forget that it actually takes a lot of effort not only to receive that blessing, but as much or more to bestow it on someone else.
Parashat Naso contains undoubtedly the most famous blessing in the Jewish tradition: Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. The Torah states, “The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel: May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord cause God’s countenance to shine on you and favor you! May the Lord bestow God’s countenance upon you and grant you peace! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:22-27).
There are two very interesting things to highlight about these verses. First, although called the “priestly benediction,” it seems obvious from the text that the blessings are being offered by God to the people. As Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom notes, “Among the chief duties of the priest is to bless Israel in the name of the Lord; however, the blessing issues solely from the Lord; the priests’ function is [simply to] channel it” (JPS commentary).
The second and more powerful observation is that each of the blessings contains not only the blessing itself, but a safeguard to protect us from squandering that gift. Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., suggests that “May the Lord bless you and protect you” refers to the blessing of monetary wealth (d’var Torah 2007). Yet, if we are not careful, material wealth can cause us to stray and possibly lead to corrupt behavior. The second part of the verse, Weiss notes, asks God for protection and awareness of how we make use of our possessions.
The second blessing, “May the Lord cause God’s countenance to shine on you and favor you,” associates the shining of light with God’s Torah. “While one can know every word of Torah, one can still lack the ability to interact and engage others in an appropriate manner,” Weiss says. “This blessing concludes with the word, ve-hunekah, from the word hen, grace. This last statement is telling us to remain gracious to others because knowledge can often make one insular — even arrogant.”
I would add that throughout life there is always more we can learn, not only from our tradition but also from one another, and it is incumbent upon us to remain open to that possibility.
The last of the blessings, “May the Lord bestow God’s countenance upon you and grant you peace,” offers us the gift of Divine presence, that we should feel it even when it seems absent, even hidden from us. As Weiss concludes, “Although we hope to always be absorbed in God’s presence, sometimes even that experience can distort one’s perception of how to change the world.”
The goal for all of us, then, is to act in the world in a way that promotes not only peace but sheleimut, wholeness, rooted in what God wants for all of humanity.
Blessings have the power to transform us in profound ways, both positively and negatively. While a goal might be to recognize the blessings in our lives, we must also work hard to keep things in perspective. Interestingly, this benediction is written in the singular, perhaps with the hope of creating unity in thought and deed as a broader Jewish community.
If we are able to work together toward a common good, toward healing the world, we might just enable each of us individually and collectively to experience the ultimate blessing, of sheleimut/wholeness, and of shalom/ peace.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.