September 18, 2019

Torah portion: The blessing of peace

If you could give another person the ultimate blessing, what would it be?

The word “blessing” is a tricky one because it has so many meanings. Our medieval Portuguese commentator Abravanel spells out at least four — three that occur in Judaism and one that does not. 

A blessing can be a tangible gift. God blesses people with sustenance and material needs, for example, as in “And the Lord blessed Abraham with all things” (Genesis 24:1).

A blessing can be an expression of gratitude and praise, especially from people toward God. This is the type of blessing referred to when we say “Baruch Atah (Blessed are You)” at the beginning of our prayers. We are praising God, the source of all blessing.

People can offer blessings for each other that are not physical gifts, nor statements of praise, but rather, supplications to God on the recipient’s behalf. We wish that the Divine will bring a flowing of goodness to our bless-ee. We leave it up to God for the follow-through.

The kind of blessing that does not occur in Judaism, however, is the idea that, by certain words or actions, we can literally change the nature of matter in the world. When I am visiting inmates in jail, I am often approached by non-Jews asking for kosher food. An easy way that I can tell that they are not eligible is to ask what kosher food is. If they say “food blessed by a rabbi,” they are way off.

In our parsha this week, Naso, Moses completes construction of the Tabernacle, and God tells him to have the priests bless the people, spelling out the blessing they should use — a passage we call the Birkat ha-Kohanim or priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26). 

We use this exact formula today in many contexts: for Jews descended from the ancient priests to bless their fellow congregants on holidays; for parents to bless their children on Shabbat; for rabbis to bless wedding couples and b’nai mitzvah; and for seminary teachers to bless their students, creating new rabbis. 

It might seem that these examples fall under the fourth category of blessing — altering the universe with our words. But Abravanel is quick to assert this is not the case. “The priest who blesses us is but an instrument, a medium through which the benediction is expressed,” he wrote. It is God who makes things “blessed,” not people — making such supplications the third kind of blessing. 

Still, there is something special that happens when these long-tested words are offered, at just the right time, by someone with the intention to create a holy moment. We become God’s assistant, pointing the way we’d like to see the blessings flow and commending God on this wonderful work.

The formula of the blessing is fixed, but there are many ways to understand it because it is quite cryptic. It has three lines, each with two verbs and God as the actor. As the Jewish Publication Society’s translation puts it:

The Lord bless you and protect you!

The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!

The Lord bestow favor upon you, and grant you peace! 

As I see it, these lines refer to physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, which, getting back to the beginning of this column, has to be the ultimate blessing. 

As we learn from the hierarchy of needs proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, we can’t focus on anything else until our physical needs are met. So we start here: May you be safe and comfortable. May you have good health and financial stability. May you have enough so that your material needs are met, and not so much that you become prideful or fearful about your possessions or accomplishments. 

Next is the emotional plane. Grace, chen in Hebrew, isn’t a word we think about much in Judaism, but it’s a perfectly Jewish idea. God gives to us freely, without us having to earn our blessings. So this is a wish that the recipient be mindful of God’s spontaneous gifts. May you see that God is always there, providing emotional sustenance to you, through your relationships with others and with the Divine. May you constantly find opportunities for gratitude and love, connection, community and deep happiness. 

And finally, we wish the blessings of favor and peace. We may think peace is an absence of war, but in this case, it’s more like an absence of distractions, our constant state of being busy, such that we can settle into silence, and hear the still, small voice of God in our hearts. 

Silence breaks out in our lives sometimes. It takes us by surprise and sets the cacophony of our day-to-day in stark relief. May you hear the call of God in beautiful moments of silence, and may this bring you the greatest comfort of all. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is a board-certified health care chaplain working in home hospice and institutional settings. She owns a referral agency for clergy in private practice (, and is a provider of creative Jewish after-death ritual (