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Parashat Naso provides the script for one of the more penetrating segments of the Hebrew liturgy–the birkat kohanim, or priestly blessing. Over the millennia, this benediction has remained a seminal means of invoking the Divine in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. In this parashah, God dictates the blessing to Moses, who is to teach it to Aaron and his sons, the kohanim, or priests:
May God bless you and guard you.
May God make God’s face shine upon you and grant grace to you.
May God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace (Numbers 6:22-26).
At the Sephardic synagogue in which I was raised, Shabbat mornings were punctuated by the eerie call-and-response of the benediction and the congregation’s hopeful rejoinder: “May it be God’s will.” Integral to the priests’ recitation were the rituals accompanying the blessing that seemed to suspend kohanim and congregation together in a humbled thrall.
Recitation of the Priestly Blessing
At a specified time in the service, the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.
The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape, the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.
I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers. I have always suspected though that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other.
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