By Rabbi Dan Lewin
One of the most famous passages appears this week as Moses instructs the Kohanim to bless the entire nation of Israel, both in the Temple and for all times. Earlier this week, during the festival of Shavuot, Jews implemented this mitzvah at the Kotel — and in synagogues around the world. It is an auspicious moment that links our people with its past.
Everyone desires good health, wisdom and financial security, and tradition teaches that while the Kohanim recite these specific passages, it is a most favorable time to receive all kinds of good things. Indeed, when the part of the prayer service arrives, it is common for people to make an extra effort to be in the room, to bring in their children — tucked under their father’s tallit — so that the whole family can be there as the Kohanim bless the congregation.
There are also many peculiar details that relate to this mitzvah. Kohanim ascend the platform without shoes, raise their hands with their fingers split in a certain way and make a unique preparatory blessing that ends, “who has commanded us to bless the people of Israel — with love.”) Then they loudly utter the ancient words facing the congregation: “May G-d bless you and guard you. May G-d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you. May G-d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
The commentaries explain how these passages contain the most all-encompassing blessing: covering material prosperity, spiritual blessing, knowledge, compassion above and beyond what one deserves — and finally peace!
What words accomplish
But let’s examine the Jewish view of what it means for one person to bless another. Is it a good wish, an encouragement, or do words carry some power to make things happen?
The short and simple answer is that the reason we see variance in people’s lives — some are wealthier, some healthy while others suffer, etc. — is based on a mystical system of zechut —roughly defined as “merit” or “good fortune.” There is no logical scientific formula determining why one person will receive certain merits while another may be given different or fewer opportunities: this zechut can result from someone’s positive actions, or even the actions of family members of previous generations that trickles down to descendants. But if an individual has this merit “above,” he or she can attain the blessing “below,” in this world.
Receiving the blessing is also based on a nuanced system: Sometimes this blessing will simply materialize by itself. Other times the merit exists above but has yet to land — it lies waiting in storage, so to speak. Or there is a problem; the heavenly “pipes” get stuffed. Other times, the appropriate “groundwork” is not properly prepared by the person. (Of course, one must always make the best natural conduit for success, staying active and creative.) In those cases where there is a zechut, yet no result — the ability to bless rests in the hands of human beings.
To be sure, G-d is the source for all blessing, but certain individuals are granted the ability — with speech — to trigger these blessings. And when they decide to do this, the merit above gets pushed down and occurs. The origin of this idea is an explanation of the verse in Bereishit where G-d tells Abraham, “Go forth from your father’s house…. And you shall be a blessing,” wherein the commentaries explain that “the blessings are put into your hand.… From now on you can bless whomever you desire.”
In general, the power to bless another is in proportion to character and spiritual refinement, but there are exceptions — such as the famous priestly blessing. The Talmud further elaborates on other exceptions saying, “Never take the blessing of (even) a common person lightly.” In other words, we never know which person, at the right time, can trigger the heavens with their spoken good wishes.
Prayer versus blessing
Now, after all this, one may wonder, what is the difference between blessing another person and someone praying for them? Simply put, when it comes to a blessing, the merit is already waiting in potential — it only needs to be revealed through speech. The novelty of prayer, however, is that even if the recipient doesn’t have a particular merit awaiting, prayer can create a new source of blessing. That’s why, as discussed last week, many prayers begin with the words, “May it be your will that…,” which is our request for a new will; so even if something was not designated, we can request reconsideration.
Comparing these two systems, prayer has a novel accomplishment and power of change, yet is more of a long shot. In contrast, blessing activates something already waiting in potential, so if the merit is there, it is easier to reveal. The esoteric teachings further explain that the Kohanim blessing features the advantages of both prayer and blessing.
Utilizing two systems
The final message is that destiny can be activated and even changed. While we experience down times and seemingly impossible hurdles, the power of prayer and blessing are effective spiritual tools. In addition to physical action, we can also go to the source by receiving a blessing or praying. And since one never knows the spiritual pathway to activate the solution to our needs, we should accustom ourselves to giving blessings to others and receiving blessings from others — to thinking and speaking more positively.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.