God’s face: Loving-kindness meditation and the Birkat Kohanim (Priests’ Blessing)

| parsha reflection |

I grew up calling it “dukhening”, the Yiddish term. Formally, it’s the Birkat Kohanim, in Hebrew, or Priestly Blessing, in English.

I can’t think of any other moment in a synagogue service that feels anything like the Birkat Kohanim. For me as a kid, it was melodramatic and powerful and mysterious and that drama was exciting and fascinating and baffling and anomalous and weird. The Birkat Kohanim is the moment in a holiday service when a group of (usually) men stand on the pulpit, shoes off, tallises (prayer shawls) pulled over their heads, hands out in front of them, palms forward, fingers splayed to form the Hebrew letter “shin”, blessing us, the congregation.

One word at a time, repeating after the cantor, they chant this blessing over us.

            “Y’varechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha…

            Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha v’chuneka…

            Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom…”


            “May God bless you and keep you;

            May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you;

            May God’s face lift towards you and place upon you peace.

These beautiful words come from this week’s torah portion, with G-d instructing Moses: “Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them…”

I love the feeling, during the dukhening, of being connected directly back to ancient times, to mystical, magical ceremonies that we don’t experience in modern Judaism. The words that are chanted come straight from the time of the first writing of the torah.  The physical enactment comes from the time of the Temple, when the priests would stand high on a platform and perform elaborate rituals to bless the Israelites.

At the same time, the particular way this ritual is enacted is pretty uncomfortable for me and many modern Jews. The men on the pulpit are “Cohens” – meaning anyone who happens to be descended from the “priestly class”. How are they qualified to bless me?  And it’s only men (in most synagogues), no women. If another human is going to be a conduit from G-d to me, I’d like some better qualifications, please!

And, again, at the same time, this blessing immediately conjures for me the words of the “loving-kindness” meditation – a traditional Buddhist meditation with many versions, which we sometimes use at the JMC.

May we be blessed with peace

            May we be blessed with joy

            May we be blessed with loving kindness

            May we be blessed with compassion

And after meditation, we ask, “May our practice here bring us peace. May this peace not stay only with us, but radiate out into the world through our thoughts and words and actions, and may we be of blessing. May everyone know peace.”

Ahh. That speaks directly to my soul. It says to me: we all have the capacity to bless each other. Simply by being human, and present, we all have the ability to channel the Divine and shine that blessing out through our palms. We do that every time we bring ourselves back to our authentic, divine essences through mindfulness.

My kavanah, or intention, for this week is that we all see ourselves as “priests” and “Israelites” at the same time. That we see our practice of mindfulness as bringing blessings and peace to ourselves, and, through ourselves, to all the world.