I remember I saw duchening for the first time. Duchening is the practice of men of Priestly – Kohen – lineage blessing the congregation at certain sacred occasions. I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a vaulted Beit Midrash (study hall) in warm-toned Jerusalem stone. We would assemble before the heat of the day for our morning minyan and, as is the custom in Jerusalem, we would have weekday duchening.
As the citizen of a country with a constitutional monarchy, I am not unfamiliar with the pomp and circumstance of inherited privilege. I had always reflected on the Kehunah – the Priesthood – in a similar vein. A benign but fundamentally non-egalitarian relic from another era. As those of Priestly descent moved towards the bimah, we all covered our heads with our tallitot: the Priests covered themselves completely, to signal that they are the transmitter rather than the source of blessing. For us, in the congregation, we covered our heads with our tallitot in alignment with the practice to not look upon the Priests, and cast our eyes down and our hearts inward. It is believed that when the Priests spread-eagle their hands in the characteristic letter ‘shin’ shape, of Star Trek fame, the Shechinah (feminine Divine Presence) dances upon their finger tips and flows into us.
I wholly expected myself to be reactive and cynical. As an egalitarian Jew, and a Jew-by-choice, no less, I am supremely invested in the idea of agency, not hierarchy, as the driver of Jewish life. We all have to make Jewish choices and Judaism should be open and democratic; not beholden to any type of essentialism or call-backs to systems of inherited power. It is precisely this argument that has led the early Reformers to abolish any trappings of the Kehunah.
And yet, the ritual was moving. There is something really profound to being blessed and we surrendered to the moment. The plaintive melody in the minor key, first chanted by the prayer leader (a non-Kohen) and intentionally repeated by the Kohanim. A sanctuary swaddled in prayer shawls. A moment of stillness and wonder. A door opening to the bold idea that perhaps God truly wishes to bless and love us. A chain of transmission unbroken for over three thousand years. All those thoughts tumbled through my head as I received blessings as an ‘Israelite’ from the Kohanim.
Fast forward years later, and I got to experience not just receiving but transmitting blessings. I remember that first Shabbat after my first child was born. Cradling my newborn, I had lit an extra candle for Shabbat, as per a custom to light an extra light for each child one brings into a family. Now it was time to bless him. Overwhelmed with everything that young parents confront, I now realized that I had the Shechinah dancing on my finger tips as my husband and I rested our hands on our baby’s soft head and uttered the ancient words from this week’s Torah portion.
Almost six years on, we still bless our children at the Sabbath table. Our children receive them along a continuum of receptiveness and resistance. We precede our blessings with what we are proud of and what we appreciate about our children that week. Sometimes the blessings are rushed; sometimes we luxuriate in their meaning but always they are sincere. At times, our children insist on putting their soft, small hands on our heads and blessing us, in a delightful and poignant role reversal. Nothing gives me more naches, joy, than hearing my four-year-old garble the words of the ancient Hebrew as she reciprocates.
Still, we were not done with blessing. In appreciation of the ancient tradition of Pidyon haBen, the Redemption of a First Born, my husband and I made arrangements to redeem our boy. Normally, this is done a month after birth although the Talmud allows – and even requires – it to be done at any stage if the parents have procrastinated. Since we did not have access to a friendly neighborhood Kohen back in the UK, we were privileged to enlist Dick Caplan and his sons to redeem our boy at the ripe old age of five (talking about procrastination!) We bribed our kids with gifts of Lego and brought some of our family silver for the so-called ‘sacred exchange’ that would allow us to ‘buy back’ our Israelite son from Divine service, as per the Torah’s instructions. Just like my experience at the Conservative Yeshiva, this ritual, among dearly loved congregants, felt deeply meaningful in ways that are borderline irrational and hard to articulate. To see those kind hands rest on my son’s slightly bemused head, to hear those words uttered, to stand firmly in a tradition of millennia, was moving. Even more moving was the notion that we can give each other this gift of blessing. Of sacred intention and love.
When Kohanim in traditional communities are called upon to bless the congregation, the b’rachah (blessing) they recite to fulfill the mitzvah is slightly different. The Priest will utter:
Blessed are You… Who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.
It tells them to bless the people ‘b’ahavah’, in love. There’s a Jewish mystical concept known as ‘Shefa’, flow. The practice of mitzvot is meant to open that flow of Shefa, and allow God’s love and blessing to wash over us and for us, by being God’s hands, to let that love flow through ourselves and our communities. It is our hope that the Shechinah may dance on our finger tips and the Tree of Life take root in our hearts.
Parashat Naso challenges us to think of agency and hierarchy, oscillating between the disenfranchisement of the Sotah ritual and the empowerment of the Nazirite vow. Not unlike questions of inheritance, heritage, privilege and power in today’s world, it is a complicated and fraught text. We as humans experience the constraints of our birth and social position; depending on the intersection of personal and collective circumstance. Still, the majesty of the Priestly Blessing is perhaps this portion’s greatest legacy. Without dismissing the moral questions the Torah portion raises, let us reflect on the power of blessing and fulfill the calling to be vessels of blessing. What a powerful idea that love can flow through us. Into our children, into our communities, into ourselves. Or, in the words of Midrash Rabbah’s commentary on the Priestly Blessing, ‘God will give you the wisdom to be gracious to each other and merciful to each other.’
We have a way of drawing Heaven down to Earth; whether metaphysically, symbolically or metaphorically. That we have a single sacred act – through the laying of hands and the pronouncing of words – that convey the depths of the human heart. No matter what words or acts we use, that power is our unique gift. May we use it well and be truly blessed by it.