'The Priestly Benediction' -- Its Meaning For Today

Last week's Torah portion -- Parshat Naso -- contained the well-known birkat kohanim, what is called "the priestly benediction". It happened to be the Torah portion of the week that my daughter , Rabbi Dahlia Kronish, was married 8 years ago, to Joshua Maudlin, so I dedicated my sermon in synagogue last Shabbat to my daughter Dahlia and son-in-law, Josh, on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. Originally restricted to the priests in Temple times, this special series of three blessings from the book of Numbers is performed in American Jewish tradition as "the benediction" by many modern rabbis, who pronounce this blessing in their synagogues on various occasions, usually at the end of the service

Dahlia's grandfather -- my father, Rabbi Leon Kronish, of blessed memory -- used to bless his congregation, with his hands raised high like a cohen (priest), at the end of every worship service in his synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom, in Miami Beach, Florida (where I grew up). People used to tell me for many years that they literally felt that they were in the presence of God at this special moment. It was his way of delivering a message of peace to his congregants as part of every worship service.

I had the privilege of sharing this blessing with my daughter and son-in-law, as part of their wedding ceremony, which of course was a great honor for me. And, when our children were growing up, my wife and I blessed them with this blessing around the Friday night Shabbat table as I know that many contemporary Jews with their children every Friday night.

And so, in honor of all my children, I would like to share some brief reflections concerning this threefold blessing:

Numbers 26: 22-26

#1 יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May the Lord bless you and protect you

#2 יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May the Divine Presence deal kindly and graciously with you

#3 יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
May the Divine Presence bestow Her Favor Upon you and grant you shalom.

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#1 יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May the Lord bless you and protect you

One interpretation of "May the Lord bless you" says: "with material wealth" and "protect you" is added to mean "from losing that wealth" (The Sifrei). For those who used to have lots of money in the stock market, in America or in Israel, this may indeed be a good interpretation, but it is probably less relevant for many people in America these days and certainly not relevant at all for most of us in Israel who do not have disposable income to invest in the stock market.

Another interpretation: "May God protect you from being corrupted by the attainment of material blessing" (Bamidbar Rabbah, the midrash on the book of Numbers). This is probably more relevant for many political leaders and some of our so-called "religious" leaders in Israel, who are falling prey to the increasing temptations and dangers of corruption in our society.

Another interpretation: "May God bless you according to your needs--blessing the student with intelligence, the merchant with business acumen..." This is a lovely interpretation. We can all use the blessing of intelligence! And some "business acumen" would help many of us in running our organizations and businesses, whether they are for profit, or not-for-profit.

And we could all use the blessing of Divine Protection to help us navigate the difficult journeys in our lives.
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#2 יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
"May the Divine Presence deal kindly and graciously with you".

What does this mean for us and our lives--in families, in communities, and in society?

The words "deal kindly" are a loose translation from the literal "make His face shine". Kindness is an attribute in short supply in modern society. People are too busy in their hectic lives to be kind to one another. Instead, there is so much screaming and acrimony in our society. (I love that Ellen DeGeneres ends every show with the words "Be kind to each other".)

Kindness is the most important religious obligation! But apparently many people find it hard to be kind and compassionate. Maybe it is not always in our genes, or in our environment. Therefore, it is helpful to be blessed with the attribute of Kindness. If only more people were blessed with this trait, it would be a better world!

But there is more to this second blessing. Other famous commentators, such as Hirsch and Sforno, render it "May God enlighten you", so that you can understand the purposes of life. For the author of the Midrash (of the Sifrei, an interpretation of Numbers), this second line of the blessing is a prayer for the light of wisdom and the knowledge of Torah. Unlike wealth, they require no protection to prevent them from being stolen.

The second half of this 2nd blessing adds the words "May the Divine Presence deal graciously with you". The attributes graciousness, loving-kindness and mercy are essential if we are to live moral lives. They will enable us to be more fully human; they help us care for the underdogs and the underprivileged in our communities; they will help us relate to all human beings with greater understanding and compassion.
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#3 יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
May the Divine Presence bestow Her Favor Upon you and grant you shalom.

According to another Jewish commentator, Peace begins in the home, then extends to the community and finally to the entire world. We should all be blessed with Shalom bayit (peace in our homes)--the fullness and satisfaction of establishing a warm, welcoming and spiritually nurturing Jewish home. At the same time, we ought to be concerned with social harmony--or lack thereof -- in our communities, as well as with peace in our country and our region.

Too many people have become apathetic about this and only care about themselves, and maybe their families, but have given up on seeking cohesion for their communities or peace for their country. We need to be blessed with the attribute of seeking peace and pursuing it actively in our lives, for the betterment of our people and all peoples in our region.

(I am indebted to Rabbi Harold Kushners' Etz Hayim commentary on The Torah for some of the ideas discussed in this post.)