One of my favorite parts of Shabbat is the ritual of blessing and being blessed. My parents did not start blessing me on Friday nights until I was in high school. What inspired the change? The “aha” moment for them was when their friends told them about the ritual and then said, “if you have the chance to bless your children, why wouldn’t you?” It was this simple question that inspired them to start the “new” tradition in our home on Shabbat. From that moment on, every Friday night my parents would bless my brother and then bless me. No matter where we were in the world we received our blessings.
The beautiful and ancient words that we find in this week’s parashah have taken on new meaning for me as I sing them each week at B’nai Jeshurun—a moment of blessing for each of us, no matter how old or young we are, we are all children and all in need of blessing.
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יהוה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ
יָאֵ֨ר יהוה פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ
יִשָּׂ֨א יהוה פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם
May God bless you and protect you.
May God shine God’s face upon you and be gracious to you.
May God lift God’s face toward you and grant you peace.
Scholars note how the simple formulation of this blessing goes from three words, to five words, to seven words. The blessing itself increases as it is chanted not only in structure but also in meaning. Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz teaches that the blessing ascends first focusing on a person’s material needs, then moving onto one’s inner and spiritual desires, and ends with a combination of both the material and spiritual, culminating in a blessing for shalom.
The word shalom, often translated as peace, is derived from the root ש.לֹ.מ, meaning whole or complete. Peace is the foundation of everything. The Netziv, a 19th-century Polish commentator, teaches that peace is granted at the very end of the priestly blessing because peace is the vessel that holds all of the previous blessings, without peace there is no place for blessings to live. Peace is like the clasp of a necklace holding all of the beads together making it whole and complete.
Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, in his commentary on parashat Behukotai understands that without peace there is nothing. He notes how every morning in shaharit we recognize God as עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא אֶת־הַכֹּל—the One who makes peace and then, only after that, creates everything. Peace is the foundational building block for everything else in the world. We end the amidah with a prayer for peace and every full kaddish ends with the same plea. Peace is the container for all of our blessings, it is the conclusion of all blessings and it is the start of every blessing.
As I receive the priestly blessing from my parents this week and I think about their desire to bless me, I think about the origin of these words. How this blessing is the blessing that God told the priests to use to bless the people on God’s behalf. These words are God’s blessing to us and so, in a time where we are heartbroken—when we so desperately need peace, when we beg for our hearts to be complete and whole once again—I turn and I ask You, God, “if You have the chance to bless your children, all of humanity, why wouldn’t You?”
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵֽינוּ וְעַל כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן
May the one who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel, and all who inhabit the earth. And let us say: Amen.
Wishing you a Shabbat shalom u’mevorah—a Shabbat full of peace and blessings.