D’var Torah: June 17, 2016

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, contains the Priestly Benediction. It is one of the most ancient texts in the Torah and is probably one of the oldest prayers in continual use. Traditionally, this prayer is recited by priests (kohanim), or those descended from the line of Aaron. They wrap themselves in a prayer shawl, hold their hands with fingers spread in the position made famous by Mr. Spock in his “live long and prosper” gesture, and bless the congregation. The position resembles the letter shin and represents one of the names of G-d.

When I was a child, our rabbi, Rabbi Ronald Millstein, used to end every service with this benediction. He did not put his tallit over his head (and I don’t think that he was a kohein), but he did put his hands into the blessing position. My mother would press my head down so that I would not be able to see his hands. It was believed that G-d’s presence was there and that looking upon the hands in this position could be dangerous. My mother didn’t believe this, but rather that bowing your head is a sign of accepting and welcoming the blessing, a way of participating in it. The current trend, is to end services with this blessing, but with the community hand in hand, arm in arm essentially blessing one another. Yesterday, we had a sofer, or scribe, visiting the Temple. He pointed out to me that the negative space between the lines of the priestly benediction in the Torah looks like this hand in its position of blessing.

All of this got me thinking about the role of hands in blessing. The priest raised his hands in a shin, representing G-d’s presence, over the heads of the congregation, thus symbolically raising G-d’s hands over the community in blessing. Why hands? What do hands have to do with blessing? Hands are about action. We tend to think of blessing as an amorphous thing. But the reality is that we bring blessing into the world through our actions. By the symbolic laying of hands on us, I believe that G-d is pushing us to be a blessing, to hold hands with G-d, partnering with G-d in the eternal task of tikkun olam (repairing our world).

Although the text of the priestly benediction is all about G-d blessing us with safety and peace, a big piece of the underlying message, I believe, is about becoming more godly. When we reach out to G-d and G-d reaches back, we partner in making the world a better place and then truly we bring G-d’s blessings to our world.


Cantor Sally Neff