Rabbi Sandra Kviat, 10 June 2016
Of blessings and prayers
And so we offer you [name of bnei mitzvah student] this blessing:
May you continue on your journey of exploration, may you always read and ask questions and look for answers both within the Jewish world and outside of it. May you use your intelligence and your compassion to seek truths and help not only yourself and your community, but all those you meet on your way.
The Chavurah in Crouch End has developed an interesting bnei mitzvah ritual; at the end of the Torah service, after the student has read their portion and explained it, and are finally breathing again, we ask them to come once again before community. Standing in a circle made up of their closest family and a representative of the community they receive their bnei mitzvah blessing. It reflects on them as people and their learning journey, we then give them an inspirational text to take them forward in their lives, and finally we conclude with the above blessing and the priestly blessing.
This ritual which was inspired by a ceremony rabbi Charles Middleburgh once led in Copenhagen, has grown in popularity to the point that to many families it is an essential part of the coming of age journey itself. But the most telling change was when a family asked if they could also say a blessing each, while standing in the circle. The opportunity to say a blessing themselves has become so popular that most families choose this option. I wonder whether the popularity of the ritual comes down to the fact that many people do not know how to say a blessing in everyday life, or do not have the spaces in their family where they feel comfortable to give a blessing, and so the bnei mitzvah circle blessing becomes a much-needed opportunity.
We finish the circle ritual with the priestly blessing; ‘May God bless you and keep you, May God look kindly upon you and be gracious to you, May God reach out to you in tenderness, and give you peace’ (Numbers 6.22-24) which comes from parashat Naso, from this week’s portion. It’s a well-known and well-used blessing, and yet it has some significant theological problems.
The biblical context makes it clear that it is only to be said by the priests and that the consequence of its utterance is that God will bless them/the people. Implicit in this blessing is a sense that if said correctly by the right person (the priest) the words can force or at least ‘assist’ God into action. Other powerful ‘blessers’ in the Torah is the father’s blessing, especially if it said at the end of the father’s life, exemplified in Isaac’s blessing of his two sons. Though Isaac cannot force God his blessing ‘assists God in revealing and confirming the future’1 . The priest or the father were believed to have a special spiritual privilege that others didn’t. And it all verges dangerously close to the idea of ritual magic – that by doing something ‘down here’ in the right way by the right person with the right credentials’ somehow we can influence or even control God ‘up there’. The discomfort is not modern, Rashbam who lived around the 11th century questioned the idea of cause-and-effect of blessings and instead suggested that we should see it as a prayer – an aspiration for the sake of others. As Rabbi Plaut so succinctly put it; ‘God’s presence becomes a common hope rather than a certainty, similar to the blessing which is a greeting and a prayer; “The Lord be with you” (Ruth 2.4). The rhythmic strength of the threefold prayer opens the heart of those who pronounce and those who hear it, and God in turn will grant God’s blessing in accordance with God’s own will’2 .
The time I’ve seen this most clearly happen is when at the very end of a service I invite the community to turn to each other and choose a concluding benediction3 and then bless each other face to face, a ritual I first learnt about from rabbi Shulamit Ambalu. For most participants, this is the first and only time that they become blessers.
Over time I’ve realised that the power of blessings has little to do with the title of being a rabbi or a representative, or a cause (and effect), and everything to do with the relationships you create with the person or the couple that is being blessed. Their hearts are opened because of the link you have forged with them, because you get to know them, and because they are given the space to become blessers themselves.
1 Plaut, (1981), The Torah – A modern commentary, p.184
2 Plaut, (1981), The Torah – A modern commentary, p.1066
3 See Siddur Lev Chadash, p.529
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