Unlocking the power of a blessing

This week’s Torah portion is Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89.

“God bless you!” People often say these words, and not just when somebody sneezes. Yet I wonder how many think about what they mean, or where their power comes from.

One source is in this week’s Torah portion, in which God instructs the priests — the kohanim — to bless the people with these well-known words: “May the Lord bless you and guard you.” Though religious in nature, these words have entered popular culture. For example, they have been set to music and are often sung by choral groups.

What exactly do the priests do when they offer this blessing? The rabbis of the Talmud explain that the kohanim are not actually the source of the blessing. Rather, when they utter the words, God will be moved to bless the people. In the process, all who hear the blessing are united in a bond of holiness.

The blessing’s power comes from the context in which it is spoken. Clergy of many religions use these words as a benediction at the end of a service. Rabbis say them to bless a bar or bat mitzvah, or a couple under the chuppah. Some parents bless their children and grandchildren with these words every Friday evening when Shabbat begins.

After my wife. Karen, had our frst child, I blessed him on Friday evenings. As more children came along, they were added to the blessing. Even today, when my grown children visit us, they come to me on Friday evening for their blessing, and then they bless their own children.

When our children went off to college, Karen and I realized that giving blessings shouldn’t come to an end. That’s when we started blessing each other. When Karen blesses me on Friday evening, it is the most special moment of the week.

Just as God empowered the priests, we should use the same authority to bless others. It is a gift that everyone — rich or poor — can give to others: our family, our friends, our co-workers or teachers, and even someone we may meet only once or twice. Just think of the love and affirmation those words will impart.

Questions for discussion

Has anyone ever blessed you? How did you feel when it happened? Are you willing to share that feeling with others?
What words of blessing can you give to those who are dear to you?
Is it better to use existing words, like the Priestly Blessing, or should you be more spontaneous? n

Rabbi James Michaels is the director of pastoral care at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.

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