Blessings from a place of peace and love

BY RABBI ELIZABETH HERSH

 The Priestly Benediction (Birkat ha-Kohanim) that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, is my favorite blessing. In the words of Rabbi Steven Kushner, “Here the ultimate blessing is to be in perfect harmony with the Holy One.” This is “where the distance between the I and the Other is too small to measure.” This is a blessing that unites God and humanity through the human soul and voice. 

“May God bless and protect you!

“May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you!

May God lift up His face toward you and grant you peace!”

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This is clearly a blessing from God and, as I explain when having the privilege of delivering it, I am only the conduit for these words from God. 

Rabbi Shai Held explained: “We do not create the goodness we bestow but rather pass it on.” 

It is an honor each time I have the privilege to recite this ancient prayer.

We read this portion the week after Shavuot. At the heart of Shavuot is matan ha-Torah, the giving and receiving of Torah, which is an ultimate act of love between God and the Jewish people. Think about the connection between this blessing and the Festival of Shavuot. The priests recite a blessing before blessing the people: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.”

Isn’t it true that blessings come from a place of love? If we are going to extend or receive this blessing, shouldn’t we feel love? Is this a reminder to the priest and now rabbi to be certain that his/her heart is in the right place before lifting hands and voice to another human being created in the Divine image? When blessing children before Shabbat, what are we telling ourselves as well as them? 

Furthermore, each time we recite or hear these ancient words, we are reminded of the covenant at Sinai. We stood in the wilderness excited to freely enter into a covenant with God. We stood shoulder to shoulder with every Jewish soul who would ever be born and knew we were loved. And this love would spread from soul to soul to create a harmonious community. It is more than a blessing of love from God. It is a beautiful reminder to love all created in the image of God.

A story: Three men were courting the same woman. She did not know which one to accept, so she decided to go on a trip to another continent to think things over. The suitors were asked to furnish her with an expression of their love before she went away. One brought her a gold charm, inscribed with her name. The second presented her with a rich garland of fragrant roses. The third appeared before her, and said, “My love, I have neither a gold charm nor a fragrant bouquet; but I have a heart; here your name is engraved; here your memory is precious. And this heart, full of affection, will follow you wherever you travel, and remain with you wherever you will be.” [Taken from Stories for Public Speakers, edited by Morris Mandel.]

When my father blessed me with these sacred words more than 25 years ago, he was letting me know in a Jewish voice that I carried his love with me wherever I traveled. He opened his heart as his parents had done for him and I knew, one day, I would for my offspring. It is a gift of love, overflowing in my heart, carrying me along the pathways of life.

Elizabeth Hersh is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.