As we begin to train our eyes towards the High Holy Days, we also begin the annual trek towards the preparation for the great ‘season of repentance’. And as we prepare, this week’s parashat Naso provides us with an interesting perspective of why we perform a particular act of repentance — an oral confession of our wrongdoing, both to God and to anyone that we have hurt.
What is the significance of the ‘oral confession’ and what does it reveal about the words of the prayers that we experience daily irrespective of the subject of those prayers.
Minutes of Torah
In this week’s parashat Naso, we are introduced to the Priestly Blessing, a blessing extended by the priests on certain holidays, and in more modern times by parents in blessing their children. In these verses, God teaches the priests a special blessing for the children of Israel. It serves as an interruption from the priests’ seemingly endless list of sacrifices given and received on behalf of the people as well as rituals in their direct communication with the Divine.
Compared to all the blood and guts of animals as well as the burning of fat and incense, this blessing is rather quiet and intimate. It is not a response to guilt, or conflict, or jealousy or even gratitude. God simply wants humans to take a moment and bless each other.
Rashi heightens the preciousness of the moment by indicating that the priests should not bless the Israelites hastily or in a hurried manner, but with concentration and with wholeheartedness. It is not enough that the priests bless the people with the proper words. According to Rashi, they must focus, giving the blessing slowly and with intention and heart.
What is a blessing? What is happening when the priests, or we, turn towards someone and bless them?
One explanation is that there is a difference between wishing someone well — which we are all accustomed to doing, and ‘blessing’ them — admittedly, an unusual experience. For the former, we can say: “I hope you get that job you are interviewing for tomorrow”; or for the latter, we can say, “I want to bless you that you get that job tomorrow.” The difference is immense. For most people, using the word ‘bless’ seems to establish a feeling of connection to the divine nature of the universe, perhaps even with Divine assistance, and not merely an amorphous ‘hope.’
A blessing is not a wish or a hope. Once uttered, wishes and hopes seem to float out in the universe, untethered and direction-less. Blessings — especially the priestly blessings — call upon forces of love and peace in the universe to wrap themselves around the person being blessed — the ‘bless-ee’. Giving a blessing may seem to be a slightly presumptuous one — bringing holiness into the space occupied by human beings.
A modern translation of the priestly blessing begins with,
“May the Force of Compassion bless you and watch over you.”
This is a blessing for safety and care. The world can sometimes be a scary place and it is easy to feel alone. Knowing that there is a force beyond our control watching over us helps to bring us a sense of comfort and ease.
The blessing then continues,
“May the Eternal cause its countenance to shine to you and favor you.”
What does the Eternal’s countenance feel like as it shines on us, and for God’s countenance to show us favor? It is the feeling of being loved and of belonging. It is the warmth of the sun as it gently heats our face. It is the feeling, deep within, that we matter.
And the blessing concludes with,
“May the One raise its countenance toward you and grant you peace.”
Real peace is the feeling of connecting with the oneness of the world. Peace is the container for all other blessings. As Thich Nacht Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who died last year at age 95, would say, “there is no way to peace — peace is the way.” Being blessed with peace is therefore the ultimate blessing of realizing our true nature.
Receiving a blessing is meaningful and powerful, but so is giving a blessing. Blessing others opens the heart and gives the bless-er an apparent power that is transformative. Sending blessings to distinct people without their awareness is highly unlikely to result in their feeling any difference. But by orienting our hearts towards blessing others, it opens feelings of love and connection within us, which changes the way we relate to others in the long term. Perhaps God gave the blessings to the priests to open the priests’ hearts, and to help connect them with the wider Children of Israel.
Why not try to set aside some time this week to practice sending blessings. You can do this in silence in your home, bringing specific people to mind and blessing them repeatedly. You can also do this in traffic or when walking around the supermarket, focusing on a person that you may not know that you see in front of you and blessing them (silently). Once you have chosen your person, slow down, and bring your whole heart to act. Say to yourself this variation of the ‘priestly blessing,’
“May this person be blessed with safety. May this person be blessed with love. May this person be blessed with peace.”
Concentrate on the person and on the power in your heart and mind to partner with God in this precious and powerful act of ‘blessing.’