A few weeks ago we read one of the most famous passages in the Torah wherein Moshe was commanded to instruct the Kohanim to bless the entire nation of Israel both in the Temple and for all times. Recently, during the festival of Shavuot, we implemented this instruction in synagogues around the world. It is an auspicious moment that links our nation with its past.
People rush to shul to hear these blessings, making sure to bring in their children so that they too can be in the room, tucked under their father’s tallit, at the time the Kohanim raise their hands to bless the congregation. We all desire good health, wisdom, financial security- for us and our families- and somehow this event seems a favorable time to collect.
The Kohanim ascend the platform without shoes, raise their hands, and loudly bless the congregation with the ancient words: “May Hashem bless you and safeguard you. May Hashem make His countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you. May Hashem turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”
The commentaries explain the meaning of these verses, and how this passage contains the most all encompassing blessing: covering material prosperity, spiritual blessing, knowledge, compassion above and beyond what one deserves, and finally peace.
But let’s examine the Jewish view of what it means to give a blessing in general. Is it a good wish, an encouragement, or do words carry some power to make things happen? The very short and simple answer is that we see differences in people’s lives. Some are rich, some are poor, some are healthy, some have children, etc. Everyone knows the famous question: why are some people more fortunate than others? The mystical sources tackle one aspect of this by introducing a fundamental principle that everything in this world has a source above.
There is something called zechut – merit. Blessings in one’s life are based on a certain system of merits. There is no scientific formula determining why one person will receive particular blessings while another will have fewer. A zechut can result from something that someone did or even benefiting from the actions of previous generations. If the recipient has the merit above then he or she can attain the blessing.
Sometimes this blessing will materialize by itself; sometimes the merit exists above but has yet to materialize. In other words, at times there is a problem, a blockage. The “pipes” get stuffed. Or perhaps the appropriate “groundwork” is not laid so the blessing can’t “land.”
In such cases, there is a system in which the ability to bless rests in the hands of people. In other words, while G-d is the source for all blessing, certain individuals have the ability to trigger His blessing. When they decide to do this, the blessing is granted. The origin of this idea is an explanation of the verse in Bereishit where G-d tells Abraham “The blessings are put into your hand…From now on you can bless whomever you desire.”
In general, the power to bless is in proportion to one’s personal attributes and level- but there are exceptions: To give the famous blessing, a kohen doesn’t have to be exceptional. The Talmud elaborates on other exceptions saying “Do not take the blessing of (even) a common person lightly.”
After discussing the system of blessing someone, let’s now examine the idea of prayer. What is the difference between blessing and praying for someone? With a blessing something is waiting in potential but has not actualized; one must reveal it through speech. The novelty of prayer is that even if someone doesn’t have the merit (it is not preordained), prayer has the power to create a new merit or source. That’s why prayers often begin with “May it be your will that…” These words request a new will wherein even if something was not designated, we pray for reconsideration.
Comparing these two systems, in terms of accomplishment, prayer has a greater power than blessing. But in terms of the person’s position, one is coming from a weaker stance. Prayer is only an attempt to change G-d’s will whereas blessing activates that is already waiting. The Kabbalists explain that the novelty of Kohanim blessing is that it possesses the advantages of both prayer and blessing.
The final message is that our destiny can be activated and even changed. While there are down times or seemingly impossible hurdles in life- the power of prayer and blessing is very effective. Just as when someone is sick, one goes to a doctor, we can also go straight to the source by getting a blessing or using prayer. Furthermore, since one never knows how the blessing is going to come, we must accustom ourselves to giving blessings, to thinking and speaking positively.