Although God is blessing the Jewish People through the priests, he is also blessing us as individuals. He knows what the nation as a whole needs as well as what each one of us needs.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is Nasso (Numbers 4:21–7:89), and in it we read about “Birkat Kohanim,” the “Priestly Blessing.”
Birkat Kohanim is a formula that the Kohanim, the Priestly tribe – essentially descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses – use to bless the Jewish people. The Torah commands the Kohanim to stand in front of the congregation, raise their hands to shoulder level and pronounce the blessings found in the Book of Numbers (6:22): “May God bless you and keep you. May God shine his face upon you and be gracious with you. May God bestow His favour upon you and grant you peace.”
This ceremony continues to this very day. Birkat Kohanim is performed daily in most of Israel and on holidays outside of Israel.
An interesting feature about Birkat Kohanim is the special position in which the Kohanim must hold their hands while reciting the blessing. If you have ever seen the series “Star Trek,” then you have seen this Kohanic hand position. The character in Star Trek, Mr. Spock, from planet Vulcan, greets people with the blessing “live long and prosper” while holding his hand towards them with a gap between his thumb and first finger, and a gap between his middle and third finger, forming something like the letter “W”. This is how the Kohanim do it (though in most congregations the palm faces downwards)!
Leonard Nimoy, “Mr. Spock,” brought this hand gesture to the “big screen” after having seen the Kohanim position their hands in this manner when blessing the congregation in the synagogue. One will also frequently see this hand gesture on tombstones in a Jewish cemetery. This is a sign that the person buried there is a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron.
It might just be that Nimoy should not have brought the hand gesture to the big screen. In fact, we are even told not to look at the Kohanim’s hands when they give the blessing lest it distract or embarrass them.
During the era of the Holy Temple there was an additional ban on staring at the hands of the Kohanim because, we are told, God’s Divine Presence was visible on their fingertips when they blessed the Jewish People. This is why it is customary for the men of the congregation to cover their heads, and most of the body, with the tallit (prayer shawl) when the Kohanim recite the blessing. It is also customary that the children come under the tallit as well, allowing everyone to “hide” together as a family while being blessed by the sons of Aaron.
It is noted that the blessing is worded in the singular. But if the Kohanim are blessing the congregation, and by extension, the entire Jewish People, shouldn’t the blessing be worded in the plural?
One explanation is that blessings are very specific and geared to the individual. It is not possible, fair, or wise to give everyone the same blessing. For example, rain may be a blessing for a farmer but a nuisance for a traveller. Only God knows what each of us needs and when we need it. As such, He told the Kohanim to bless the people in the singular so that each person receives the blessings most appropriate to him or her. Divine blessing is not generic – it is specific to each individual’s needs, dreams and yearnings.
We all think we know what we want. We all think we know what we need. We all think “I need,” “I must,” and “I deserve” but we’re wrong. If there is something we don’t have and appears not to be within reach, it probably means that God doesn’t want us to have it or doesn’t think we need it. This is what the Priestly blessing is all about.
So count the blessings in your life. They were tailor made for you!
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.