August 2021

Prayers & Passages: The Priestly Blessings

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By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss

One of the most moving blessings in our liturgy is known as Birkat Kohanim (“The Priestly Blessing”) found in the Torah portion Naso (Numbers 6:23-27). In this reading, God commands Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to speak these words to the Israelites:

May God bless you and protect you.

May God’s presence shine upon you and be gracious to you.

May God turn toward you and grant you peace.

On Shabbat and holidays, the Priestly Blessing is recited near the conclusion of the Musaf service. During the High Holy Days Musaf service, the Kohanim cover their heads with their tallitot (prayer shawls) and separate their four fingers into a “V” pattern made famous later by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (played by Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy). After an introductory prayer, the leader calls out the Priestly Blessing one word at a time, echoed by the Kohanim. To preserve modesty, the congregation is forbidden from watching these proceedings; they must just listen.

Today, a Rabbi may offer this threefold blessing to the congregation at the end of a Shabbat service, or to a couple at the end of their wedding ceremony. You may hear these sacred words at a Brit Milah (circumcision) or baby-naming ceremony as an infant is welcomed into the Jewish fold, or at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as a teenager enters Jewish adulthood.

To recite the Birkat Kohanim during worship services, a minyan of ten adults (i.e., Jews over age 13) is required — not surprising as it was meant to be a communal blessing. Yet, the Hebrew used is not in the plural format; rather it is in the singular.

Why is it written this way? A clue lies earlier in this Torah portion. At its opening, God instructs Moses to take a census of the Levites — priests who were not descended from High Priest Aharon, the brother of Moses. The general translation is: “Take a census of the sons of Gershon, of them too, following their fathers’ houses, according to their families.” However, the exact words in Hebrew are “Naso et rosh,” which literally means “lift the head of” (singular) “B’nei Gershon” (“the sons of Gershon”) (plural).

If you were to count a group of people (“1, 2, 3…”), you would probably not be looking at any of them as anything but a number. But what would you see if you lifted someone’s head and looked at his/her face and into his/her eyes? You would see an individual, a unique human being, each with hopes, dreams, challenges, feelings, fears, and joys.

In Jewish services, we pray as a community, yet we are also present as individuals. During our busy lives, it is easy to lose sight of each person’s individuality and uniqueness. But God never does. God sees in us the good and the bad and still loves us. We are not expected to be perfect, but we are expected to constantly strive to be the best individual that each of us can be. The Priestly Blessing confirms that.

In Naso, these words follow the Priestly Blessing: “They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.” It reminds us that although the Kohanim are meant to administer the blessing, they are only the intermediaries; it is God who blesses us.

As individuals, we have responsibilities to those around us: our family, friends, and community. If we are fortunate enough to be blessed with the light of God, we are expected to shine that light upon others.

May the light of God always shine upon you.

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