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Dear Friends,

Other than the Shehecheyanu blessing that thanks God for allowing us to share moments of power and importance, perhaps the most famous blessing in all of Judaism appears in this week’s Torah portion. Birkat Cohanim—the Priestly Blessing—is a three-sentence blessing that is used to recognize the sanctity of some of life’s most powerful moments. We recite it at the end of a Jewish wedding. We use it as part of a baby’s naming or bris. And, each week, we have the privilege of offering these words to our bnai mitzvah.

The text of the blessing states,

Adonai bless you and protect you!

Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you!

Adonai bestow Divine favor upon you and grant you peace!

(Numbers 6:24-26)

We are taught that in ancient times the priests stood on a special platform known as a duchan and recited the blessing to the community twice each day. (It is from this Biblical ritual that we inherited the practice known as “duchaning.”)

We know that this blessing was used frequently in antiquity in part because, during the excavation for a museum in the 1990s, a small silver scroll was found in a cave. When it was unrolled the words of this very blessing were found etched into the metal.

As one might suspect, a blessing as old and as important as the Priestly Blessing has garnered considerable attention from the rabbis throughout history. One interpretation is particularly instructive.

Adonai bless you and protect you!

The beginning of the first line, “May Adonai bless you,” is interpreted as meaning,  “May Adonai bless you with material wealth,” while the second part of that line, “and protect you,” means “and may Adonai guard the wealth you amass.”

Judaism is not, nor has it ever been an ascetic tradition!

Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you!

The first part of the second line (deal kindly) moves from material success to the success that comes when we build strong relationships based on kindness and love. The commentator Sforno takes this a step further, rendering the line, “May Adonai enlighten you” and notes that the purpose of that enlightenment is to gain an understanding and appreciation of the purpose of life.

The second part of this line adds, “May the Divine Presence deal graciously with you.” To the rabbis, this suggests that the goal of wisdom is the attainment of qualities such as graciousness, loving-kindness, and mercy. Each is a critical component of what it means to be fully human.

Thus, while the first line asks for material blessing, the second line asks for the blessing of wisdom, knowledge, and a sense of spiritual richness. Strikingly, while the blessing for wealth ended with a request for protection, no such protection is needed here. Unlike money or material wealth, wisdom and spirituality cannot be stolen or lost.

The third and final line of the blessing, “May the Divine Presence bestow favor upon you and grant you shalom,” ties the first two together. Asking for peace reminds us of the need to strike a balance between the material and the spiritual, the financial and the intangible.

The Priestly Benediction offers powerful insights into Judaism’s perspective on life. It reminds us that material success is a blessing when gained through hard work and honesty. It challenges us to remember that all the material success in the world is only sufficient if we nurture our inner life. And it calls on us to work to strike the proper balance between the two realms. Then, and only then, will we truly know shalom—the wholeness and peace that makes life worth living.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen