Responsibility Ours for Blessings to Flow

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By Rabbi Joshua Waxman

Parshat Naso

Every Friday evening, after we sing “Shalom Aleichem” and before we make kiddush, my wife and I bless each of our children in turn with the ancient words of the priestly blessing.


Although our oldest child is 16 and now must bend over so my wife and I can place our hands on his head, this is a precious weekly moment for our family, as for so many other families that make time to offer blessings at the beginning of Shabbat.

The words of the priestly blessing come from this week’s portion, when God instructs Moses to teach these words to Aaron and his sons — the priests — so that they may bless the people: “May God bless you and keep you. May God shine the Divine face on you and be gracious to you. May God raise the Divine face toward you and grant you peace.”

Although the blessing is pronounced by the priests and is associated with them, the very next verse adds something unexpected, for God’s instructions conclude: “So they” — the priests — “shall place My name on the children of Israel and I will bless them.” This verse makes clear that, while the priests recite these sacred words, the blessing does not come from them, but rather from God.

On the one hand, this makes sense: All blessings come from God and imagining that human beings have the power to bless (or curse) smacks of superstition and magical thinking, leading down a path that ascribes power and providence to certain people or groups of people rather than to God. But if it is God who is, in fact, blessing the people, then what purpose do the priests serve at all? Why are they commanded to recite the blessing? Couldn’t God bless the people directly?

The tension in this passage between the role of God and the role of the priests in bringing blessing to the people can teach us something important about the nature of blessing.

While God is the ultimate source of all blessings, God also wants human partners that will serve as conduits to transmit that blessing into this world. The Talmud makes this point when it states that just as God clothes the naked, we are to clothe the naked; just as God visits the sick, we are to visit the sick; just as God comforts the mourners we are to comfort the mourners (B. Sotah 14b).

Humanity’s responsibility in carrying out God’s will goes back to the very first human. After placing Adam in the Garden of Eden, God charges him “to till and to tend the earth.” Expounding on this moment of entrusting responsibility to humanity, the Midrash portrays God saying to Adam: “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world — for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.13).

These passages encourage us to recognize that it is up to us, following God’s example and instructions, to help God’s will become manifest in the world through our own actions.

It’s a weighty and daunting affirmation of our power and responsibility. If the world is to be perfected we can’t wait for God to make it happen for us. We can certainly pray — and should! — for the world to be more peaceful and equal and just.

But our prayer needs to spur us to act as well, helping to bring the blessings God wants for the world into reality. In serving as human vehicles to bring God’s blessing to the people in our Torah portion, the priests serve as concrete reminders of the possibility — and obligation — that all of us have to help bring God’s blessing into the world, not simply to wait for God to do it on our behalf.

The priestly blessing, then, serves as a powerful affirmation of the collaboration that exists between God and humanity in making blessing manifest. When parents speak the words of the blessing to their children on Friday nights, they acknowledge that our children are precious gifts for which we cannot take credit and whose very existence is miraculous. And yet our role as parents and as partners with God enables us to help them grow into the people they are meant to be — indeed, it could not happen without us.

When we recite the ancient words of the priestly blessing, we affirm the partnership that we have with God in allowing blessing to flow, God willing, into our children’s lives — and we acknowledge the enormous privilege we have of being the channels through which that blessing can flow to our children and into the world. 

Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the spiritual leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington and serves as president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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