Perhaps the most salient aspect of this week’s Torah portion — Parshat Naso— is that we read the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) in full for the first time. This blessing — known as birkat kohanim — connects the generations through its nature of transferring holiness through physical action. When traditionally performed, those with priestly status raise their hands to bless the congregation. This ritual is also replicated, to an extent, every Shabbat (birkat ha’banim), when parents traditionally place their hands upon their children’s head and say these words:
“May God bless you and safeguard you.
May God illuminate Divine countenance for you and be gracious to you.
May God lift Divine countenance to you and establish peace for you.”
The birkat ha’banim, like its liturgical cousin, has much to teach us about Judaism’s most powerful idea: pursuing and actualizing peace.
In the Torah portion of Bechukotai found in Leviticus, there is a verse that states that one can have everything (food, money, even health) but if one doesn’t have peace, then nothing will be fulfilling or actualized. Additionally, the Piskei Teshuvot (271:1) says that Friday night is the best time to focus attention on the need of peace since “spiritual abundance ﬂows” throughout the evening. In turn, we channel that spiritual abundance to our children. The Chatam Sofer (in his prayer book) gives a more practical reason, stating that: “We are free from the hardships of the weekday and we are able to focus on the blessing from a place of feeling open and calm.”
But it is not only parents who bless their children with peace. When we are fortunate, our children return that blessing to their parents! One midrash explains that the Jewish people were worthy to receive the Torah on Shavuot (which we celebrated earlier in the week), not because of our forefathers, but only because of our children:
“When the Jews stood before Sinai to receive the Torah, God said to them: ‘I swear, I will not give you the Torah unless you provide worthy guarantors who will assure that you will observe its laws.’ The Jews responded, ‘Master of the world, our forefathers will be our guarantors! … God replied. ‘Bring proper guarantors and only then will I give you the Torah.’ As a last resort, the Jews declared, ‘Our children will serve as our guarantors!’ ‘They truly are worthy guarantors,” God replied. ‘Because of them I will give the Torah.’” (Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 1:4).
But why, ultimately, does the traditional blessing for children end with a blessing for peace among other virtues? Simple. Peace doesn’t represent merely the absence of conflict, but also a deeper spiritual state of connectedness and rootedness. It is the moral foundation to a good life and to a good society.
Thus, in all we do, our blessings need to be bound up with peace. I cannot think of a regular ritual more important than to gather around one’s table to welcome the Shabbat, enjoy another’s company, reflect on a challenging week, learn together and bless one’s children with peace. Of course, as important as the blessing for peace is, perhaps more important is to then create a home culture of peace that grounds our children for their life in love and holiness.
Our children are our future. This statement is not merely a cliché, but a philosophical treatise of constant renewal. On a collective level, we place faith in our children to ensure that the Jewish people survives and flourishes. But on a more intimate, familial level, we seek to pass on our deepest and kindest values. This is why having children is one of the greatest acts of resistance against despair.
This Shabbat, if we are fortunate to have children and to have them present, let us not bestow blessings on them out of an obligation to fulfill the ritual. No! Let’s focus, with deepest intentionality, on this season’s clarion call to live with peace, seek peace and transmit peace throughout the generations to come. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.