A Prayer or a Blessing

Moshe Kempinski

Do the Kohanim ( Aaronic Priests) bless the people of Israel or do they pray for them? Is there a difference?

We read the following in the Torah portion of Nasso

“HaShem spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: “May HaShem bless you and watch over you.May HaShem cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you.May HaShem raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.” (Numbers 5: 23-27)

Is the Priestly “blessing” a prayer or is it in fact a blessing. While the two concepts are related, they are not the same.

Prayer is usually an attempt to change reality. It comes out of an awareness of “what is missing” and becomes at times a plaintive cry to fill in that missing piece. Yet it is important to remember that prayer does not change G-d’s mind . Prayer is about changing us. In most faith based traditions the verb “to pray” is seen as an active verb. In Hebrew, to pray ,LeHitpalel,is actually a reflexive verb. In fact the root of the word is connected to the word for judgment, pelillim. Standing before G-d in prayer necessarily involves an entry into clear and lucid self judgment.

While it is true that the Biblical narrative is filled with accounts of individuals turning to G-d in prayer in order to effect a change of decree or circumstance, these incidents are initiated by the need of those people to undergo deep individual change. The decrees, the trials and difficulties that abound in this life become opportunities for growth, strengthening and maturation. The decree becomes changed once the shift and correction begins in the souls of these individuals.

Hezekiah in the book of Kings was told that it was decreed that he would die. After “turning to the wall in prayer” the decree was lifted. Could it be that Hezekiah’s prayer changed G-d’s mind? Could it be that G-d was surprised by the contents of Hezekiah’s prayer? Is not a Divine decree irrevocable? Hezekiah’s prayer did not change G-d’s decree. Hezekiah’s prayer changed Hezekiah. The old Hezekiah truly died. It was the new Hezekiah that received the new declaration.

This is the power of prayer.

Blessing is not about changing reality but rather it is about unleashing it. The Hebrew for blessing is berachah, shares its root with the Hebrew word l’havrich, an agricultural term that describes the re-rooting of a vine into the ground . In working in a vineyard havracha, ‘or kneeling’, involves taking a rooted plant and ‘kneeling ‘ it down into the ground and then this “replanted vine eventually takes root as well.

When a blessing is bestowed, what is accomplished is the joining of the spark of blessing in the person’s soul with the source of blessing above. In effect, nothing new happens. The blessing merely activates the existing source of the blessing above and reveals it below.

After Isaac blesses Jacob and sends him off, Esav enters and reveals that Isaac had blessed the “wrong” son. “And Isaac shuddered a great shudder, and he said, “Who then is the one who hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate of everything while you had not yet come, and I blessed him? He shall be blessed(Baruch Yihiyeh) Genesis 27:33) When Isaac put his hands on Yaacov,he felt the surge of the fulfillment of the bracha within Yaacov. He then knew that Yaacov received the blessing that was determined just for Yaacov.

Prayers usually come from a place of yearning, a desire to replenish what is missing.The blessing suggests a certain measure of guarantee in that it unveils that which is already there, albeit in concealed potential. Prayer suggests no such guarantee, but it has the power to create a new reality.

The Birkayt HaKohanim ( the Priestly blessing) is predominately a blessing.The Kohanim act as a funnel from the source of all blessings to reveal what is there waiting to be revealed.

“This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, …..They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.” (Numbers 5: 23-27)

Yet this same Birkat Hakohanim comes from a source of Prayer as well. That is what gives it its extra spiritual strength and power. Before the Kohanim bless the people they declare their own bracha thanking G-d for “sanctifying them with Aaron’s sanctity and commanding them to bless His nation Israel with love.” As Hillel’s declares in his famous statement in Pirkei Avot, “Be like the sons of Aaron,” he said. “Love peace and pursue peace, love people and draw them near to Torah.”

It is their love for the people that makes their blessing into a prayer. It is that power of love that both unleashes and refashions reality. That is the power of this ancient ceremony. The Birkat Kohanim ceremony becomes a meld of a loving yearning for what could be and an affirmation of what is and needs to be unleashed. To this day I can still remember that sense of awe and wonderment as I hid under my father’s tallit during the Birkat Kohanim.I also continue to be moved to this day as I cover my own children and grandchildren wityh my tallit during the same sanctified experience.

“They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel( in prayer) , so that I will bless them.”

( le-refuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved)

1 thought on “A Prayer or a Blessing”

  1. Thank you for this teaching! It opened up a new understanding of the Birkat Kohanim to me. I’m eager to share it with my friends!
    Shalom, Malie. (From South Africa)

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