A few months ago, parents of the Kol Tzedek Torah School's kindergarten class were invited to come and celebrate the conclusion of their unit about Shabbat. I typically teach this family education session. But this year, I also happened to have a child in the class so I got to participate as a parent. Jess, who teaches the class, taught about the practice of Birkat Yeladim, blessing children on Friday nights.
Some of you may remember that my older child has for years protested this otherwise tender ritual. Such that we largely forgot about it. Until we were invited to study it with our five year old. I was reminded again that these ancient words are at once magical and theologically awkward.
May God bless you and protect you. What if my idea of the Divine lives in my heart?
May God illuminate their face towards you. Wait, does God have a face?
May God lift their face towards you and place within you peace. A face, again?!
Then Jess invited us to write a three-part blessing based on what our kids actually wanted to be blessed with. With some prodding, my five year old was able to realize his three deepest prayers:
"May you be as sweet and as green as nettle cake.
May you have so much fun on Naim planet.
May you be kind."
And laughed inside. What a silly kid. (In another email I will explain the origins of nettle cake.)
The priestly blessing holds a very important place in my heart. I still remember the first time I ever said the words to another person. I offered the blessing to a classmate in rabbinical school. The words crawled off my tongue. I was a little embarrassed. It was obvious the words were new to me. And also I was excited to finally utter the oldest blessing in our tradition.
I have said these words countless times since then. It is with these very same words that we bless each other on Yom Kippur. The very same words that we bestow upon every B'nei Mitzvah in our community. The very words I offer to every couple under the chuppah.
But every time, I translate it a little differently. Depending on the people and the moment. It is, after all, poetry. But never have I quite translated it like Naim!
It was not until this week, as I was studying Parashat Naso, where these words originate, that I understood the authenticity of Naim's rendition.
Haamek Davar, a 19th century Hasidic teacher, comments on the opening line:
"'May God bless you.' Included in this is whatever is appropriate for each person to be blessed with...For one who deals in Torah, in his study. For one who deals in commerce, in his merchandise."
And so for a child who loves sweet things and imaginary play, may they both be in abundance.
While I always felt this to be true, it is freeing to see what my child understood instinctively expressed so clearly in the words of a teacher in the great yeshiva of Volozin. The priestly blessing is a placeholder, or perhaps a portal, into our core longings. No one, after all, wants a compulsory blessing of something undesirable.
Please know that every time we offer this blessing at Kol Tzedek, and call upon the Holy One to bless you and protect you, we are expressing our deepest hope that we each be blessed and protected in the ways we uniquely need.
I think Marcia Falk got it right when she translated this ancient blessing as follows:
"Be who you are!
And may you be blessed in all that you are."
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.