D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Naso)

Ever since we were blessed to become parents a little over eight years ago, my wife and I have sat down to Shabbat dinner with our children, placed our hands gently on their heads, closed our eyes, and blessed them with the Priestly Blessing – likely the oldest of all ancient Jewish blessings, and possibly the oldest Bible text, as well. And yet even though we are drawing from a source that is thousands of years old and hasn’t changed since, ours sound just a little bit different every single week, as we add our own blessings for each child based on what they tell us they need most in that moment.

The text – from Number 6:24 – 26 – reads as follows (and admittedly is much more beautiful in its original Hebrew): “May God bless you and protect you; May God deal kindly and graciously with you; May God look favorably upon you and grant you peace.”

With such a perfect piece of prose, why should we feel emboldened to add anything at all? After all, we are instructed very clearly in Deuteronomy 4:2: “Do not add to that which I command you, and you shall not subtract from it…” Here’s why: Because as powerful as this ancient blessing is, it is designed to be an umbrella blessing – one that encompasses all the ways that God has and might continue to lift us up in our lives. But it’s very universality – which invites its use at every life cycle event imaginable – can also prevent those being blessed by it to fully appreciate the intimacy with which the blesser might be offering it.

This is precisely why there are dozens of rabbinic commentaries from each generation – ancient and modern alike – that attempt to unpack the meaning of each part of the blessing. Recognizing this, the Kli Yakar (17th century rabbi) notes that “there are many opinions as to the meaning of each individual blessing, and everyone interprets according to their own illuminations.”

Another commentary, Haemek Davar (19th century rabbi), interprets the first part of the blessing (“May God bless you”) to include “whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with…Thus included in this general blessing is an additional blessing for each person.” The Priestly Blessing is a starting point, but it is also an invitation to delve deeper into the intimacy of the moment and offer your loved ones the blessings they most yearn for in their lives.

Which brings us to today, to this tumultuous, surreal and frightening time. To a pandemic that has exacerbated so many of our anxieties, underscored our individual and communal weaknesses, and deepened our growing sense of isolation and loneliness. In other words, this is a moment in which we should all be offering blessings in abundance – with heartfelt abandon – to as many people in our lives as possible.

So before the sun sets this Friday night, or maybe before you even finish reading this newsletter, think of some dear people in your life and try to intuit the kinds of blessings they most need in this moment. Maybe it’s a blessing of continued safety. Maybe it’s a blessing of prosperity in the midst of a financial drought. Maybe it’s a blessing of companionship, of being reminded that they are known and they are loved. And maybe it’s simply the blessing of being asked what blessing they need most, and then hearing their cherished friend mirror it back to them.

And if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself – the one giving the blessing – feeling just as blessed by the experience as your friend.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Founding Director, Glean Network, Director of Innovation, Clal

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