This month’s Torah readings begin with Parashat Naso, the second portion in the Book of Numbers. This portion includes one of the Torah’s truly beautiful blessings known as “The Priestly Benediction,” or “Birchat Hakohanim.” This blessing is one of the most ancient texts of the Torah and is probably one of humanity’s oldest prayer texts still in continual use. In Jerusalem, archaeologists have found a plaque with the identical words to those found in the Torah dating from as early as the seventh century b.c.e.
Over the years, commentators have been puzzled by the apparent power of the priests to bless the people. As it is written in this week’s portion, “Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel (Numbers 6:23).” In the Talmud, Rabbi Ishmael suggests: “The priests bless Israel and the Holy One blesses the priest (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 49a).” This appears to be the meaning of the verse that immediately follows the blessing: “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” However, the idea that humans — even if they are biblical priests — have the power to compel God’s blessing has been overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of our historical commentators; they, therefore, understand this last verse as “They (the priests) shall link My name with the people of Israel and I (the Eternal) will bless them (the people).”
The blessings we offer are indeed powerful but they are not magical. On our own, we do not have the power to cause that which we yearn for, nor do we have the power to compel God by the force of our invocation (despite stories in both the Bible and Rabbinic sources of individuals who are seen as having such capacities). No, like our other prayers, blessings are aspirational; we express in word and gesture our deepest yearnings.
When we speak our words of blessing, we become God’s messengers. We can use our own words or, better still, God’s words, and then bless each other with hopes for our futures.
May God bless us and protect us!
May God’s face shine upon us and be gracious to us!
May God’s presence dwell with us and grant us peace!