Blessing with love

By Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen
Parashat Naso

Some 20 years ago, I was mulling going back to school to become a rabbi. I found myself one evening at a giant supermarket that happened to be virtually empty. Grabbing what I needed, I went to the one line that was open. The customer before me was working through something with the lone employee, while her child, a small girl perhaps 2-3 years old, was wailing in the grocery cart. I made eye contact with the little girl and started smiling and making playful faces. After a bit, she began laughing and then her mom finished the purchase and departed.

As they departed, a male voice called out: “Bless you for making that child feel better.” Looking up, I saw the voice came from a young man with Down syndrome who was bagging the groceries. The force of his words of blessing was compounded by my realization that I had not even noticed him. To be seen in a moment that I thought was unobserved, and called out by this young man, was an incredible experience of the power of blessing. I was humbled and felt as if he’d shined a spotlight upon me. I felt a deep encouragement to do more and to be more of whom I was meant to be. I felt blessed! The young assistant at the checkout line, from his vantage as an objective observer of humanity, had given me this powerful gift.

This week the Torah portion Naso, in the Book of Numbers, contains the instruction to the priests to bless the people (Numbers 6:22). The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter) took a mystical view of the priestly blessing. Rather than emphasizing the uniqueness of the lineage of the priesthood, he taught that we are all priests, working to cultivate the sublime spirit, the inner point (hanikudah hapenimit). My experience was indeed an example of receiving the impact of this aspect of priestliness, if you will, from simply a goodhearted soul.

The Torah makes clear in the following verses that the blessing for the Israelites comes through the priests, but originates from Godself, not from the priests. Rabbi Shai Held writes: “We are not sources but channels of blessing. We do not create the goodness we bestow but rather pass it on. A good teacher, for example, knows well that the Torah she teaches is not hers but God’s; she is a vehicle for Torah but not its source. A good parent knows that the love he showers upon his child is not ultimately something he himself made, but a manifestation of divine grace. The parent’s task is not to manufacture love but to pass it on.”

The blessing traditionally offered by Cohanim (priests) before actually offering the priestly blessing concludes with words unique among Jewish blessings: “commands us to bless his people with love.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes that this requirement to bless with love is unique among all blessings we say over a commandment. The priests must empty themselves of anger, judgment, jealousy or enmity and let a divine effusion of compassion, care and love emanate through them to the people. Looking back again at my experience, I see that what was modeled for me was to offer a blessing with the simple guileless honesty of that young man. That is the necessary prerequisite that enables this emanation of divine love.

The words of the priestly or threefold blessing are beautiful and hold wisdom for many rich teachings. But what speaks to me most is that this gift is within the power of each one of us, if only we can put aside all the aspects of our egotism. We can witness one another and bless with love.

Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen is an ACPE Certified Educator and director of rabbinical services and pastoral care with The Legacy Senior Communities.

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