This past week, a friend’s son donned his tefilin for the first time. She sent me a picture of her husband lovingly showing him how to wrap the straps over his fingers. It is a special moment that never fails to strike a strong emotional chord within me. Not simply for the beauty of the moment but for its implication and meaning. When my husband did the same for our boys, the sense of connectedness to the generations that came before us was overwhelming. Knowing that his father did the same for him, and his father before him, for generations is humbling. The beautiful ritual is a visual reminder that we are part of something greater than us, something awesome and important. It is the same as the surge of emotion that overtakes me on every visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem, placing my hands on the stones that are imprinted with generations of the emotions and prayers of those who came before me. Or the sound of the shofar during the high holidays, its blasts awakening something deep and dormant that lies within us just as it did for our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai. Or the ancient chant of the Kohanim when they bless the congregation as their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers did before them. Or when my husband places his hands on our children’s heads each Friday night for the blessing of the children. There is an unbreakable chain that connects us all to one another, as a people, through space and time, and through prayer, tradition and ritual.
The birkat yeladim, the blessing of the children, finds its origin in this week’s parasha, parshat Naso, which describes the priestly blessing, the birkat kohanim. The text itself is a beautiful composition of hopes and imagery. This is the blessing that Moshe instructed Aharon as to how his sons should bless Bnei Israel. It is the same blessing that a parent confers onto their child every Friday night.
Yevarechecha Hashem veyishmerecha
May G-d bless you and safeguard you
Ya’er Hashem panav eilecha viy-chunecha
May God illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you
Yisa Hashem panav eilecha veyasem lecha shalom
May G-d turn his countenance to you and establish peace for you
Yevarechecha, may G-d bless you, according to Sifrei, suggests a blessing of material wealth. R. Obadiah Seforno concurs suggesting that without wealth and possessions, such as flour, there is no Torah, and thus you should be protected from thieves. Therefore, the blessing is about not losing what was given. The Netziv argues that the prayer is rather that each person should be granted that which is most appropriate, and so Torah for the Torah scholar, success in business for the tradesperson, and so on. But he goes on to clarify that “May He protect you” is most important as the gift one receives should not become a stumbling block. For example, he says, that wealth should not lead to greed or stinginess, or even that the Torah scholar should not become arrogant. Yishmerecha, may G-d keep you, is a request for divine protection from physical danger. Ya’er panav eleicha, may G-d illuminate His countenance for you, meaning that your face should radiate with blessing and holiness. Viy’chunecha is derived from the word chen meaning grace. Though with no perfect English translation, Rashi offers that chen is akin to the word chinam, describing when a beautiful gift is given for free. The Chafetz Chayim suggests that this prayer is a sort of bargain with G-d: “Even if your people make themselves unworthy of Your loving kindness, bless them anyway with Your grace for that is Your nature” (Itturei Torah). Yisa Hashem panav eilecha veyasem lecha shalom, the final verse, is a blessing for peace, without which one cannot enjoy the other blessings and without which recognizing G-d as the source for these blessings is a challenge.
Interestingly, these instructions to the Kohanim, with the words clearly dictated, are followed by G-d saying “I Myself will bless them” (Bamidbar 6:27). This emphasis on the divine source for the words is to clarify that the priests are mere conduits for the blessing (Rabbi Akiva, Hullin 49). And for that, there is a preparation required. It is noteworthy, that when the priests prepare to confer Birkat Kohanim, the prayers they recite beforehand they say “Blessed are You (…) and command us to bless His people with love”. Why mention love? The Torah does not want the Kohanim to bless the people by rote. In fact, the Zohar (Naso 147b) even states that “a priest who does not love the people or is not loved by the people should not raise his hands to bless them”. The first priest, Aharon, was indeed celebrated for his deep love of the people (Mishnah, Avot 1:12). We learn from this that “to bless by rote is to fail to bless”. Similarly, when blessing a child, the parent is to place both hands on the child’s head “to signify that the blessing is conveyed with complete generosity of spirit” (Rabbi N. Shurman, Artscroll Siddur).
The Jewish faith is one of prayer and ritual, rich with meaning, symbolism and tradition, harkening back to our forefathers thousands of years ago. Since 1312 BCE when G-d taught Moshe the Torah on Har Sinai, the knowledge has passed from one generation to another in an unbroken tradition, a tradition that has continued for over 3300 years and continues to this day. The blessing of the children on Friday night is an important part of that heritage, a beautiful text representing the sum total of our heart’s desire for our children. When we bless our children this Friday night, may we be fully present and open our hearts with love as we bestow this powerful, ancient blessing on our children as our parents did for us and their parents before them, and may G-d see fit to fulfill His blessing for all our children.
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School