Many years ago, I was surprised and saddened at once when my husband said, “I don’t want to bring a child into this violent world.” A year earlier, the same man expressed the desire for several children. Was this invasion of the body snatchers? What happened? Although I reminded him of his previous position, the hope that children bring and the role of parents as protectors of their children, no words were able to restore his prior orientation to fatherhood.
Some decisions fracture links between the past, present and future. This was one such decision.
When it comes to matters of protection, there are abundant human and environmental opportunities. Current events remind us that violence and its potential are everywhere. My husband’s observations were correct. Violence remains a virulent, multigenerational pandemic, taking many forms: physical, verbal, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual. We will discover a vaccine for COVID-19 long before violence in our world is subdued. In any case, both protection and prevention are needed.
Balancing real concerns with optimism and hope for the future is something every individual and community faces. Consequently, receiving blessings, being a channel for blessing and feeling blessed can mean many things depending upon your perspective.
Blessings, berakhot, offer us types of prayers that lift us up and orient us to The Eternal One as The Source of Blessing. Blessings come in different categories:
Accompanying a mitzvah/commandment
Connecting to a pleasurable experience
With gratitude for God’s gifts
Praising God’s works
Recognition of God’s intervention in the human experience
Also, a blessing can be of varying length or grouped in a series, such as our three-fold priestly blessing, Birkat Kohanim. Parshah Naso introduces this treasured blessing (6:23-27). It begins with, “May the Holy One bless you and keep/safeguard/and protect you.”
Focusing on this first line of text, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1475-1550) wrote about protection from thieves and not losing what has been given due to Divine intervention. Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh (1507-1600) envisioned that the priests prepared B’nai Yisrael to receive God’s blessing by invoking God upon the people. He acknowledged that sometimes it could be more challenging to be the recipient of a blessing.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), meanwhile, focused upon the application of “you” in the blessing, as the key to unlock its meaning. May God protect you, so that the blessing received will not serve as an obstacle, or result in a problem. He taught that each person should be granted the blessing that is customized for him, her, them, thereby providing maximum benefit.
Themes of God’s protection extend to other Jewish liturgical writings, such as our beautiful Haskiveinu prayer, featured among the readings that surround the Shema. Within it, God guides and shelters us through the night as we sleep. God holds us in Divine care watching over us, restoring us and giving us an endless supply of mercy, with the added bonus of everlasting peace. Psalm 91 asserts that “no evil will befall you and no plague will come to your tent,” because God is your shelter.
Blessings and the idea of protection have a timeless quality. They remain as relevant now, as they were, centuries ago. For example, in 1979, silver amulets, affirming Divine protection in the priestly blessing, were discovered within a tomb near Jerusalem. Archaeologists determined they originated in the late seventh, or early sixth century BCE and represented the earliest biblical passage ever found.
As Jews, we must remember the safety and well-being of others is prioritized among our traditional and sacred obligations. In defiance of pandemics and in keeping with tradition, you can collaborate with The Source of All Life to be a channel for blessings, as well as a receiver, affirming you are being safely and gently held. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder serves as the rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities.