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What Gives You the Right to Bless Me?

Sermon Shabbat Naso 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

You may remember this gesture from a re-run of the famous TV show Star Trek, or one of the many movies they have made based on that show. Spock, the Vulcan Science Officer on the Starship Enterprise, raises his hands and with his fingers shaped into a kind of extended “W” format says in his rich baritone voice, “Live long and prosper.”

That gesture was not originally designed by a TV director, writer or showrunner, not even the redoubtable Gene Rodenberry, creator of Star Trek. It is actually the ancient sign of the Kohanim, the high priests, used since the days of the Temple in Jerusalem as part of the traditional blessing bestowed on the people during the ceremony of birkat kohanim, called duchenen in Yiddish. The story behind it appearing as a feature of Star Trek is that Leonard Nimoy, who gained fame playing Spock, was asked to come up with a physical gesture of farewell that a Vulcan would use. Nimoy grew up an Orthodox Jew in Boston, and he himself was a kohein. He immediately thought of forming his hands into a Shin, symbolic of Shadai, an ancient name of God, and added the Biblical-sounding phrase, “Live long and prosper.” That’s not far from the way most people have understood the priestly blessing, which asks God for physical health and safety and material sustenance. And so a primal Jewish blessing was transformed into an otherworldly invocation.

Leonard Nimoy was a fascinating guy, with a rich and complicated Jewish heritage. As a boy he had such a good singing voice that he was one of the meshor’rim, the singers in his shul’s choir, and he impressed people so much at his bar mitzvah that he was asked to reprise it the next week at another temple. As his Jewish co-star on Star Trek, William Shatner, said, "He is still the only man I know whose voice was two bar mitzvahs good!"

In popular culture, the great Canadian-Jewish troubadour, Leonard Cohen, concluded a concert in Ramat Gan, Israel about ten years ago by raising his hands in the traditional gesture and reciting the Birkat Kohanim, learned in his own Orthodox youth in Montreal.

As the child of a Kohein myself, I used to practice that gesture as a kid by stretching my fingers on the seat back of the chair in front of me. I wasn’t sure of the exact way the ritual of blessing the people was performed for a very good reason: in the Conservative and Reform synagogues in which I grew up it wasn’t done. They didn't duchen, that is, have the kohanim, the descendants of Aaron the High Priest, do the weird, antique ritual at all.

In fact, even in Orthodox synagogues outside of Israel the Birkat Kohanim with its full ritual is often only performed on the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot. I first had the opportunity to participate in duchenen when I was 16 years old, on a trip to Israel with my parents. It was over the holiday of Passover, and my father and brother and I went to the Kotel in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had gathered for the festival prayers. When the time came for the Birkat Kohanim, for the priests to offer the three-part blessing to the assembled throngs of people, hundreds of Kohanim had gathered at the Kotel. We all faced the Western Wall, covered our heads with our tallises, and chanted the blessing enabling us to sanctify the people with the blessings of Aaron. And then we turned and raised our hands in that shin gesture and chanted the words of the blessing, and the stirring, modal melody that accompanied them, over the assembled congregation.

When you do this blessing, people are supposed to hide their faces from you, as in that moment, theoretically, you as a kohein take on the same divine illumination that suffused Aaron when he gave these blessings, much like the aura that radiated from Moses face after communing with God. The men opposite us covered their faces with their tallitot. But one little boy peeked out from under his father’s talis, and my dad always recalls watching his father’s hand circling around and covering the boy’s eyes…

An artist named Rachel Farbiarz describes watching this priestly experience at her own temple growing up: “At a specified time in the service, the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention—Koh-Haahh-Neeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.

“The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape, the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.

“I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers. I have always suspected though that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other.”

Which raises a question that I, too, struggled with this past week: why can only some people confer blessings?

How many times have you been in a service or at a life-cycle celebration and heard the rabbi or cantor intone or chant or sing, “Yvarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha, May God bless you and keep you…” But did you ever think about whether the person officiating really had some special ability to bless people that other human beings don’t have?

Which raises the further question: just what is a blessing in today’s world?

At its most basic level, a blessing is a kind of gift being given by one person to another. We use this colloquially to mean anything good that happens to us, or even a person who helps us—“my mother’s nurse is a true blessing” or “that child has been a blessing to us”—but in its most typical, pure, narrow form a blessing is a way to convey divine favor from the giver to the recipient. When one person blesses another, he or she is passing on something that is, in actuality, not really his or hers to give: the one giving the blessing is acting as a kind of conduit for God. When you give a blessing, you are conveying a gift from God to another person.

In Jewish tradition, blessings are often given by a parent to a child. Each Friday night at the Shabbat table, in a ritual that we do publicly here at Congregation Beit Simcha but which you are actually supposed to do at home, fathers and mothers bless their children, using that formula that goes back millennia: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh, may God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” And some parents then add the priestly blessing, “May God bless and keep you, May God’s presence illuminate you and be kind to you, May God’s presence turn to you and give you peace.” This is generally experienced, I think, as a form of parental love being conveyed, rather than an actual gift of divine favor. Dad or mom is showing how much they care for each child, placing a hand on his or her head, touching them and offering a wish for goodness for them.

In other words, it’s a lovely gesture, a beautiful one, sweet and caring and nurturing. But I’m not sure how many Jewish parents or children think that something divine is being directly conveyed. I mean, in my experience, very few Jewish children think their parents are God… and none after about age 5. Certainly, no teenagers think that way.

But if parental blessing makes sense in a human way, what are we to make rationally of the public offering of blessing by a religious leader? The idea that one person—any person—has the capacity to bring special favor to us through his or her personal action, which is the idea behind a priest or rabbi or minister “giving a blessing” seems archaic, out of date. There was certainly a time when the common understanding was that a person who held a ritual role literally brought God’s presence to the person being blessed. But in today’s world, when religious training is essentially academic—learn the content of these books, listen to lectures, study a subject and demonstrate proficiency—the notion that there is something mystically powerful that the representative of a religious tradition alone can convey appears to be a relic of a past age. And, frankly, it demonstrates a bit of arrogance on the part of the clergyperson doing the blessing, as if to say, “Only I can give this blessing from God to you.”

And yet…

I recall a fundraising event at a congregation I was serving. It was the standard sort of function put together for such a purpose by synagogues and other organizations: a prominent person is honored, his or her friends are asked to donate to a tribute book and host tables for a significant donation, and funds are raised for the organization. The program included a video tribute to the person and his accomplishments, speeches by community leaders and family members, and a banquet-style meal. And then I, as the rabbi, was to say some words of tribute.

It was clear that the organizers—prominent members of my congregation at the time—did not want the evening to be “too Jewish.” This was a purely secular tribute to a person who didn’t attend synagogue much and did most of his volunteering at other organizations, but he was a good man and a member, and I was the rabbi. I might only see him twice a year—Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, unless he skipped one—but I still had the responsibility to connect this fundraising gig with Judaism.

I think the time I was allotted to do this on the hour-long program was listed in bold as, “Rabbi Cohon talks—2 minutes.” I have never spoken long at such an event—no one wants a sermon or even a radio show monologue at a tribute dinner—and I didn’t then. But when I finished my remarks, and started to leave the podium, I noticed something amiss. The honoree was clearly distressed. The organizer rushed up to me, and grabbing my arm whispered in my ear, “He wants to know what happened to the blessing?”

And so I re-ascended the dais and called him and his family up, and I asked everyone to rise, and I lifted up my arms and shaped each hand into the form of a Shin, symbolic of Shadai, the most ancient name of God, and I chanted and intoned those ancient words from the Book of Numbers, “May God bless you and keep you…” And the honoree’s aggrieved countenance relaxed, and things were better. I had given him his blessing.

Looking back, I know why I was so surprised. The whole evening had been devoid of religious feeling or ceremony, from the cocktails flowing freely at the opening reception to the jazz played by the hired band to the lame jokes and less-than-moving speeches and tributes during the program itself. And then, suddenly, it became clear that being blessed mattered very much to this successful but apparently religiously uninvolved man. And that the rabbi had to be the one to give him that blessing.

I’m still not sure that a Kohein, a priestly descendant, or a rabbi or any religious figure has a special power to invoke the deity or bring divine favor or somehow schlep God into the room in a unique way. To me, God is always present, and God’s blessings flow when we work to make them happen. But there definitely remains something in many people’s consciousness that testifies that being given a blessing by a rabbi or clergyperson of another kind is special, a sacred gift that only religious figures can offer. In a sense, I hope that they are right and I am wrong…

Look, I was born a kohein. As the old joke has it, my father was a kohein, my grandfather was a kohein, and by golly I wanted to be a kohein too. So I got to be one, and learned to make the magical sign with my fingers, the shin of blessing. Hoo-ha.

I like being a kohein, getting called up first to the Torah on occasion, and when I happen to be in a shul that duchens and conducts the old-fashioned priestly blessing publicly I like going up and being part of it. It’s a cool ritual: you take off your shoes, have Levites wash your hands, cover yourself in a big talis while the congregation hides its eyes, chant the weird and powerful call-and-response melody of the blessings with the cantor. It’s spooky, beautiful and unique. And when people hide their eyes, and those of their children during the blessing, they do so as though God’s very presence was shining from us kohanim, as though we really were intrinsically superior beings, closer to God.

But what makes a Kohein any holier than anyone else? In Temple times Kohanim had to live a different lifestyle, couldn’t farm or go to war, had limits on their marriage prospects, were trained from early in life for Temple service, and lived the rites of sanctity every day. But realistically, kohanim today can be observant or not, ritually adept or not, good people or not. It’s a roll of the dice. So why preserve this ancient ritual?

Perhaps it’s for a very, very simple reason. You see, it’s not just Kohanim who have a hereditary role. Judaism is all of our inheritance, it’s in our DNA, whatever our theoretical tribe, Kohein, Levi, Yisrael, whether born Jewish or having adopted this sacred trust by choice.

The real purpose of it is to remind us that we are all part of a sacred inheritance, that we each are members of the true royal family, each can, and should, wear the keter kehuna the crown of priesthood. We truly are the inheritors, spiritually, of this mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, the kingdom of priests, members of the holy people.

And that blessing, that simple, three-part blessing, confers on each of us a little bit of that holiness. So may it be: May God bless you and grace you. May the light of God’s presence shine on you and illuminate you; may God’s presence turn to you and give you peace.

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