The Blessing of Happiness

Naso By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 30, 2014 / 5774

One of the centerpieces of Parashat Naso is the Priestly Blessing. God speaks to Moses and commands him to communicate the text of the ritual blessing with his brother Aaron: “‘Thus you will bless the people of Israel. Say to them, ‘The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!’ Thus you will link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (Num. 6:22–27).

While those in the Diaspora may be familiar with the ritual of Birkat Kohanim from the High Holiday or festival services, in Israel the Priestly Blessing (also known as dukhening) is recited daily during the repetition of the morning ‘Amidah. As Jacob Milgrom points out,

The first part of each line invokes the movement of God toward His people, the second, His activity on their behalf . . . God initiates six actions: bless and protect; shine and be gracious; bestow and grant peace. However, the transitional “and” may indicate consequence: blessing results in protection; God’s shining face results in grace; the bestowal of God’s favor results in peace. Thus the Priestly Blessing may actually express three actions. (JPS Commentary: Numbers, 51)

What exactly do we hope for in God’s blessing?

Joseph Bekhor Shor spells out the breadth of blessing that is showered on the people: “May God bless you with many children, a healthy body, wisdom, length of days, greatness, in your going out, in your coming in, in the city, in the field, in your basket, in your kneading trough, in happiness (i.e., may your heart be full in its portion)—the word berakhah (blessing) is connected to all of these.” His list beautifully includes “children, a healthy body, wisdom, length of days, greatness, etc.” Methodologically, our exegete scours Tanakh for notions that are explicitly connected to the word blessing. Broadly speaking, the blessing connects to self, family, community, and existential happiness.

Perhaps the most challenging of the Bekhor Shor’s inventory is happiness, which he defines as “being content with one’s portion.” As I read this section of our commentator’s reflections, I was reminded of the congregation’s response as the priests give their blessing during the ‘Amidah. We cover our eyes as if turning away. Vision has the potential to distract us. Covering our eyes and using only the sense of hearing forces us to internalize and turn inward. As we shift orientation, physically and spiritually, the Bekhor Shor reminds us to dwell upon and create a sense of inner peace—not to let our eyes wander, seeking happiness elsewhere, but rather, to reflect on all the berakhot of our individual lives and respond with a feeling of hakkarat hatov (recognizing the good). As we approach Shavu’ot, in which we commemorate the giving of Torah, I can think of no better lesson that we as individuals and as a community need to internalize.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.