“And I Will Bless Them”: Becoming Channels for Divine Flow
Shohama Harris Wiener and David Evan Markus
How does Jewish tradition teach us to transmit blessings with maximum power and inspiration? The words of the Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim, offer clues hidden inside a paradox. Birkat Kohanim begins with the instruction, “Here is how you will bless the people Israel” (Numbers 6:23), but then seems to reserve all power of blessing to God:
God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: ‘Here is how you will bless the people Israel; say to them: May the Eternal bless you and keep you. May the countenance of the Eternal illuminate you and give you grace. May the countenance of the Eternal turn toward you and give you peace. So shall you place My name on the people Israel and I [=God] will bless them.’” (Numbers 6:23–27)
What, then, is the role of the person who bestows blessing, and what does it mean to “place [God’s] name,” beyond merely speaking these words?1 While Birkat Kohanim recognizes that God is the true source of blessing, tradition offers a profound and transformative role—a partnership with God—for all who convey blessing in God’s name. This partnership in the transmission of blessing invites us to open ourselves as spiritual channels through which to perceive, receive, and convey the flow of divinity. Just as it was in biblical days for Aaron and his sons, today this invitation to become a channel for divine flow is vital for anyone stepping into the legacy bequeathed to us from this ancient and powerful tradition.
This essay explores this spiritual role of the bestower of blessing through the use of text and the implementation of esoteric practices, and uses the rubric of hashpa·ah—Jewish spiritual direction—to formulate practical guidance for spiritual growth. As we will see, the path of conveying blessing is one of cultivating profound awe, love, and transparency to the flow of divinity in and through our lives. This path renders the human bestower of blessing not a passive bystander but an indispensable participant in the flow of divine transmission—something the world especially needs now.
The Intention of Blessing: A Teaching for This Hour
Because the Priestly Blessing invokes God’s name as a means to convey blessing and transformation, we begin with Ezra the Scribe, one of the Jewish tradition’s most pivotal exemplars of invoking God’s name. As we will see, while tradition does not record that Ezra used the Priestly Blessing to convey blessing, Ezra’s explicit use of God’s name illustrates the power of the name to transform people by connecting them with transcendent awe.
After the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., Ezra—a priest descended from the kohen gadol (High Priest) of Israel,2 and perhaps even functioning as kohen gadol in his own right3 —assembled the people to hear the public reading of the “Book of the Law of Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1). This ceremonial public reading was a collective re-dedication, another Sinai moment in which the people assembled together k’ish eḥad, “as one person” (Nehemiah 8:1), as one collective soul—to receive Torah anew. The scene was electric: with all the people united, Ezra stood high on a makeshift pulpit of wood, and the people rose as Ezra opened the scroll. When Ezra began, “[he blessed] the Eternal, the great God, and all the people answered ‘Amen! Amen!’ with hands uplifted, and they bowed their heads and bowed low before God, with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:6). The moment was transformational: a physical, emotional, and spiritual scene of “holy inspiration, charged for them all with exceptional meaning and promise.”4
What is the connection between Ezra’s reading of the Torah and the modern means and method of blessing? The Talmud records that Ezra invoked the ineffable name of God with the intention of “magnifying God before the people.”5 Ezra’s purpose, plainly, was to evoke a heart-opening awe that, by its nature, could not be compelled but only inspired and then freely chosen: in tradition’s wisdom, everything is in God’s hands except awe of God.6 The experience of divine awe—the “wow” of limitless potentiality and generativity that we call “God”7 —is thus a human choice, a cultivated practice, and a key purpose of spiritual life itself.
In Ezra’s day, however, the people were restrained from making this choice because Babylonian exile had heightened the people’s disconnection from tradition and alienation from spirit. In the words of the psalmist, exile had brought the people to weeping, sapped their ability to sing, and drained their joy (Psalm 137:1–6). Thus facing a beleaguered people in their fateful moment of return, Ezra’s mission was to restore their spiritual connection and rekindle their flame of awe. Befitting the moment’s importance, Ezra’s means of sparking awe anew was to declaim the awesome name of God—the sheim ha-m’forash, the “explicit name” spelled in Hebrew with the letters yod-hei-vav-hei, the Tetragrammaton8 linked to Moses’ revelatory experience at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6). Tradition, however, understood the name of God to be so holy that its mere utterance was forbidden, except to the High Priest on Yom Kippur.9 Centuries later, when the rabbis of the Talmud objected that Ezra had violated this sacred prohibition, Rav Giddel10 replied that Ezra’s act of explicitly invoking the name of God was a hora·at sha·ah—a “teaching of the hour,” typically reserved for exigent or emergency circumstances11—and therefore appropriate and defensible. Given the spiritual stakes, the rabbis concluded that Ezra’s ends justified the means.
Today we do not pronounce this particular name of God (the Tetragrammaton), but Birkat Kohanim still invites us to “place [it] on the people Israel.” Thus, when we accept the invitation of Birkat Kohanim to invoke God’s name, in a sense we are standing in Ezra’s shoes. While we may not be returning from physical exile, as our ancestors were in Ezra’s day, how many of us nevertheless live in states of emotional or spiritual exile? How many of us can authentically claim holiness in our lives? How many of us were reared in spiritual circumstances that were calcified, brittle, or parched? How many feel so alienated from connection to spiritual tradition that our flames of awe flicker? How many forget that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), and therefore have a nitzutz (spark) of holiness within? In the emotional and spiritual dynamics of lived experience, are we today so different from Ezra’s Israelites just returning to Jerusalem after decades in exile?
As in Ezra’s day, today’s spiritual stakes are high, and there is a burgeoning need to rekindle our inner flames of spirituality and divine awe—whether or not most modern Jews would use such language. Within the boundaries of Jewish tradition, many Jews of the post-Holocaust generations continue to search (or perhaps have given up the search altogether) for authentically nourishing connections of Jewish spirituality—connections that reach out into community, back in time to tradition, and inward to the realm of transcendence. Even for those of us who may not feel internally exiled or disconnected, whose flame of divine awe might yet burn brightly, there are invariably times in life—moments of celebration and gratitude, as well as moments of loss, doubt, and despair—when a blessing can sanctify experience, strengthen spiritual connection, and elevate awareness and expression of holiness. And as humanity slowly comes to grips with unprecedented ecological and sociopolitical challenges, the need for elevated spiritual attunement becomes even more palpable and dramatic.
For all of these reasons, just as Ezra’s hora·at sha·ah—his emergency action—was to invoke God’s name for the purpose of rekindling the flame of awe among the people of his day, this same purpose must be the “lesson of our own hour” for anyone who would convey blessing with meaningful effect. The intention of the bestower of blessing must be to connect—or even to re-connect—the recipient of blessing with the Source of Blessing. Connection, of course, only has the meaning and effect in real time that one experiences in real life: spiritually speaking, there is no such thing as theoretical connection, just as there is no such thing as theoretical blessing. Rather, experience itself is the kindling for the flame of spiritual nourishment. After all, experiences of holiness, while refracted through our human senses and narratives, are the fount of divine existence on the human plane. Provocatively, tradition offers that God is diminished and, in a sense, even disappears whenever the human flame of spiritual experience flickers and fades:
“You are My witnesses, says God, that I am the Eternal One…” Explained Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai: “If you are My witnesses—then I am [God]…but if you are not My witnesses—then I am not, as it were, God.”12
When we witness holiness and manifest spiritual flow in the world, we achieve in the moment what Martin Buber called an “intensification” of our spiritual reality.13 When we intensify our spiritual reality in these ways, we experience God in our lives. Conversely, if we do not experience God, then in a very real sense, God cannot be said to exist meaningfully on the human plane.
Through this experiential lens, then, a blessing—and particularly one that invokes God’s name, as does Birkat Kohanim—serves its connective purpose only to the extent that it inspires experience of holiness and awe. Achievement of this purpose must be the deep intention of anyone who conveys blessing. One who blesses must aspire to transport the blessing’s recipient into a deep and authentic experience of spirit, so that both bestower and recipient of the blessing cannot help but witness the truth and flow of divinity in and through themselves in that moment. One who blesses therefore must be—and feel oneself to be—a holy connector. Far from a bystander or mere functionary, one who blesses thereby becomes a channel for God’s flow in and through the world of human experience. One who blesses thus stands in the shoes of Ezra, rekindling the passion and awe that can illuminate the world.
Birkat Kohanim as Physical Portal
Of course, none of us is an Ezra. On the other hand, none of us is disqualified from aspiring to this sacred calling of becoming a holy connector on behalf of another. Whatever restrictions and disqualifications Jewish law once attached to the office of the kohen gadol, none of these limitations necessarily applies to one who conveys blessing in our own day. Even though Birkat Kohanim is part of the prayer leader’s traditional repetition of the morning Amidah, in modern practice the sh’li·aḥ tzibbur (community prayer leader) often is not a kohen. Moreover, parents commonly bless their children on Friday evening with the words of Birkat Kohanim, and in some congregations, a lay Board of Directors may itself stand in place of the kohanim of ancient days to offer the blessing to members of the community it serves—neither of which instances involves a kohen.
In the context of synagogue prayer, three physical elements often accompany the ritual of Birkat Kohanim, often referred to as dukhenen:14 removing shoes, raising tallitot (prayer shawls) overhead to conceal the face, and lifting hands.15 The physicality of these three ritual elements of dukhenen can intensify the Priestly Blessing’s experiential reality—not only because they evoke a scene that may seem otherworldly to modern eyes, but also because they re-actualize three pivotal moments of Jewish spirituality.
The first physical ritual of dukhenen, removing one’s shoes, recalls Moses removing his own shoes at God’s direction before the burning bush, where God proclaimed the ground to be holy (Exodus 3:5). As for Moses, so for us: Birkat Kohanim evokes the experience of divine encounter and sanctifies the ground beneath, so the kohanim remove their shoes before reciting the Priestly Blessing, in order to feel and draw on the earth’s power.16
The second physical ritual, obscuring the face with prayer shawls, can be understood to symbolize that the giver of blessing stands in for God: “So shall you place My name on the people Israel and I [God] will bless them.” God, however, emphatically cannot be seen: not even Moses was allowed to see God’s “face” when God’s “glory” passed before Moses in the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:20).17 God’s proclamation of the thirteen attributes brought Moses to experience profound awe (Exodus 34:6–8). Critically, the Torah makes clear that God obscured Moses’ physical sight at that fateful moment (Exodus 33:22–23), requiring Moses instead to use an inner capacity of vision. As for Moses, so for us: by obscuring the face in dukhenen, the giver of blessing invites the recipient to experience the thirteen attributes of God with inner vision and awe.18
The third physical ritual, the lifting of hands outstretched, recalls that Moses’ brother, Aaron, the first kohen gadol, blessed the people with “hands uplifted” outside the Tent of Meeting that the people Israel carried during their forty years of wandering the desert (Leviticus 9:22). At that moment of blessing, God’s glory “appeared” before the people (Leviticus 9:23). The Tent of Meeting literally was the “place of indwelling,” and God was understood to “dwell” in both the Tent of Meeting and amidst the people themselves (Exodus 25:8), so God could “meet” them there (Exodus 29:42). As for Aaron and the priestly line who first transmitted the Priestly Blessing, so for us: the lifting of hands during Birkat Kohanim evokes a spiritual mishkan—literally, a dwelling place for God—so that God can “meet” us anew.19
Layered with the symbolism of these physical rituals of dukhenen, Birkat Kohanim is no mere liturgical remnant of bygone days: it becomes a portal for one of the most profoundly symbolic experiences in Jewish collective memory. The ground becomes holy, as beneath Moses’ feet at the burning bush; inner sight re-actualizes God’s glory, as before Moses’ obscured face at the cleft in the rock; and Aaron’s priestly service, in blessing the people at the Tent of Meeting, returns for us to “meet” God. At the moment of the Priestly Blessing, all at once we kneel at the burning bush, stand at Sinai, and raise our hands in the mishkan. What other Jewish experience can concentrate such significance and harness such power, in a single moment?
Transcending the Physical Plane
Ritual physicality, however, is only one level of human experience. The quip that we are not only human doings but also human beings reflects the essential truth that we are far more than our physicality. Rather, in the language of Kabbalah, we can understand human experience on four levels simultaneously: doing, in the physical realm of assiyah; feeling, in the emotional realm of y’tzirah; thinking, in the intellectual realm of b’ri·ah; and existing, in the ineffable realm of atzilut. Thus, to serve as a channel for the flow of divinity—literally, to be a k’li kodesh, a holy vessel—is to receive and transmit in all four realms, because each is a pathway of experience and transformation. Beyond the physical plane, then, how can the emotional, intellectual, and ineffable realms shape our experience of Birkat Kohanim?
The emotional realm, the world of y’tzirah, focuses on the heart as a metaphor for the wellspring of feeling. Unsurprisingly, the feeling most important to prime the flow of blessing is the love of God. Says the Zohar: “When [one] recites a blessing, one should have…a good heart, and a feeling of love in [one’s] heart. This is the reason it is written, ‘And you shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’”20 Birkat Kohanim, then, calls the bestower to place this name of God, the ineffable Tetragrammaton, on the people with all one’s heart—not by rote or with kind thoughts alone. Rather, love of God is a precondition of this most transformational blessing. Simply put: if we do not experience love of God as much as we can in the moment, then we cannot bless in God’s name with powerful effect. On the holy path of blessing, what we do not feel, we cannot do.
Neither can we truly bless anyone with whom we do not feel connected in love. Tradition invites us to do all that we do in the name of love,21 and how much more so for the conveyance of blessing. Indeed, the Zohar is emphatic that feeling love for the recipient of blessing is an emotional condition to convey Birkat Kohanim:
We are told that a priest not beloved by the people should not take part in blessing the people. On one occasion, when a priest went up and spread forth his hands, before he completed the blessing he turned into a heap of bones. This happened to him because there was no love between him and the people….A priest who loves not the people, or whom they love not, may not pronounce the [Priestly] Blessing.22
It is tempting to imagine that this kind of love comes from within oneself. After all, love is a feeling, and anyone who has loved knows that feeling within: just as each heart “knows its own bitterness,”23 each heart also knows its own joy. Of course love must be felt—or else it is not love—but the love that most primes the flow and transmission of blessing is a love that emanates from beyond us. This is true in two ways. First and most importantly, when we love, what we feel is the flow of divinity itself.24 Second, when we love another, the highest form of love is the love that exists because of the one we love, not because of ourselves. Even the great rationalist Maimonides understood that “when you love [literally, “conjoin with another”], do not love on your own terms but rather on the terms of your beloved.”25 This kind of love is not one of willfulness, self-indulgence, or narcissism, but is rather a love rooted in altruism, surrender, and unification with the one we love.26
These are the felt emotions of blessing: altruism, selflessness, empathy, surrender, and unity. And these emotions offer a way to understand why the people appearing before Ezra stood together k’ish eḥad, “as one person” (Nehemiah 8:1): because that transcendent moment’s power dissolved the illusion of separateness between souls that human consciousness perceives in our ordinary lived experience. The resulting sense of emotional unification, manifesting love and awe, is precisely the flow of God between the bestower and recipient of blessing. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the S’fat Emet (1847–1905), put it this way:
It is written: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is the fundamental principle of the Torah. This explains that when one clings to the living spark within, in that place all of the people Israel are as one, and that itself is loving one’s neighbor. This, too, is what Rashi wrote: “your neighbor” is the blessed Holy One, in whom all is one.27
Hence we find two emotional fuels to convey blessing to another: experiencing love of God; and, through experiencing the love of God, coming to love another in a connective way that dissolves the illusion of spiritual separateness. By loving God, and selflessly loving another in loving God, one who blesses becomes a channel linking God and the person on whom the bestower would place God’s name.
While text and tradition confirm that love is the true power of blessing, we know this truth both intuitively and by experience. The blessing that most deeply touches and transforms is the blessing that is most heartfelt. The love that can radiate in a moment of blessing is palpable beyond words. The eyes may gleam, words or music can peel back layers to caress the spirit, and a touch of the hand can transmit otherworldly energy. In that moment, time can seem to slow or even stop; the room can seem weighty or filled with light; and silence can resonate like sound. The language-defying “wow” of such a moment is the experience of divine awe. The word “love,” for all the depth of emotion and experience it conveys, pales compared to the reality.
By its nature, such a love cannot be intellectualized, much less realized by mere words: there is no word or concept that can adequately depict this quality of love, much less depict the limitless potentiality we call God. And, yet, often we need words and ideas to journey through our own layers of awareness, so that we can enter into the experience of divine love and awe fully and with authenticity. This level of abstraction, which we experience as the world of b’ri·ah, evokes constructs and symbols of the intellect but asks us to hold them gently because they are, at best, only crude approximations.
What intellectual constructs can help us understand and enter into the experience of Birkat Kohanim? As we’ve seen, the physical rituals of dukhenen evoke the burning bush, Mount Sinai, and the Tent of Meeting, three quintessential experiences of God in the Torah. These three representations, in turn, can be understood to symbolize the three Jewish festivals: Passover, in which Moses liberated Israel from Egyptian bondage, following the instructions he received from God at the burning bush; Shavuot, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; and Sukkot, when tradition calls Jews to dwell in booths reminiscent of the Tent of Meeting. These are Judaism’s tributes to liberation, revelation, and redemption—the three pillars of Jewish identity and relationship with God.29 The three festivals also are Judaism’s historic pilgrimage times, in which the people collectively assembled before God (Exodus 23:17) at the place of God’s choosing (Deuteronomy 16:16)—later understood to be the Temple in Jerusalem. Birkat Kohanim therefore connects not only with the three festivals but also with their communal gatherings before God. The Priestly Blessing bends the arc of the Jewish year into a single point in time, unifying the people across physical and psychic space and investing the physical location of blessing with the symbolic power of the Tent of Meeting.
By symbolically connecting the three festivals and three peak experiences of the Jewish spiritual narrative, Birkat Kohanim seems to distill essential experiences of the entire Torah. This symbolism is no accident: when the Priestly Blessing invites us to place the name of God on the people as a way of blessing them, we can understand this name of God as the Torah itself. In the words of Ezra ben Solomon, a kabbalist of thirteenth-century Spain, “The five books of the Torah are the name of the blessed Holy One!”30
In this way, we can understand the Priestly Blessing’s focus on placing God’s name on the people as, in a sense, placing the entire Torah on them. To be sure, this is not a physical placing; but by evoking the burning bush, Sinai, and the Tent of Meeting, the Torah’s experiences of holiness, of supreme power, and of meaning are called to mind and effectively “placed” on the people. This understanding does not denigrate the traditional sense of Torah, as conveying the Jewish narrative of identity and the laws that are Jews’ historical ways of being in the world. Rather, it invites us to expand our understanding of Torah beyond the “black-letter law” of biblical command, to include also the space between the black letters, the “white space” that in mystical thought represents the infinite generativity of God. It is also this “white space”—not just the black letters of Birkat Kohanim on the Torah scroll—that is the source of the directive to bless the people with this infinite generativity. Thus, when one transmits Birkat Kohanim, one does so not only in the name of the Tetragrammaton, but also from the white space that transcends any one name of God. In the words of Naḥmanides (1194–1270):
We possess an authentic tradition showing that the entire Torah consists of the names of God and that the words we read can be divided in a very different way, so as to form [esoteric] names….The statement in the aggadah to the effect that the Torah was originally written with black fire on white fire [see, e.g., Y. Shekalim 6:1, 49d] obviously confirms our opinion that the writing was continuous, without division into words—which made it possible to read it either as a sequence of esoteric names or in the traditional way as history and mitzvot. Thus the Torah, as given to Moses, was divided into words in such a way as to be read as divine mitzvot. But at the same time he also received the oral tradition, according to which it was to be read as a sequence of names.31
Indeed, while Rashi might have been certain that the name of God referenced in Birkat Kohanim is the Tetragrammaton, its combination of the letters yod-hei-vav-hei is hardly a name at all—and certainly not one that we can pronounce. This unpronounceable “name” is a stand-in for both the entire Torah and, as Marcia Prager teaches, the inherent impossibility of accurately depicting any concept of God. Precisely because no words can suffice, the Tetragrammaton refracts myriad God-names that Torah and tradition record, to approximate the breadth of our understandings and experiences of God:
Jewish wisdom teaches us an unpronounceable name to remind us that the eternal power, the source of all, is beyond our approbation. This is the “hidden” name, hidden in its very unpronounceability; hidden because we can intend it but not say it; hidden because its very nature is to point beyond itself to the ultimate mystery of existence. When we see the name, we can only pause and breathe.
The name is mysterious and unpronounceable. So how are we to speak God’s name? When we really need to say something, what should we say? It is a powerful practice to hold God’s name in mind and breathe. But sometimes we really do wish to communicate and with intention call out to God by a name we can speak.
The naming of God reflects the multiple facets of the crystal revealed to our people. In Jewish (as in Islamic) tradition, we call the One by many descriptive names. Jewish prayer is a rich treasury of God-names and words of praise. Yotzeir means to create like an artisan from what already exists. We at times call God the great Yotzeir, the Artisan. We also call God Borei, the One who creates everything out of nothingness. We call God Ha-raḥaman, Source of Compassionate Love. Reḥem means “womb”’ and Ha-raḥaman is the aspect of the Holy One we know as the Source of unconditional nurturance. We call God M’kor Ha-ḥayyim, Source of Life; Ein Sof, the Limitless, Without End; Ḥei Ha-olamim, Life Force of Time and Space; El Elyon, the Most High; Ma·ayan Raz, the Mysterious Well; Go·eil, Saving Power; Atika Kaddisha, the Ancient Holy One; Yah, Breath of Life; El Ro·i, God Who Sees Me; Ha-Makom, the Place of the World or the Place we go to. Sometimes we just call God Ha-sheim, the Name.32
The “name” that the Priestly Blessing invites the priests to place on the people, then, is not truly a name but rather a “treasury” of names that encompasses the rich variety of human understandings and experiences of divinity—while transcending them all. How appropriate, then, that our ancestors intended the name to evoke divine awe: after all, in modern spiritual language, the mission of channeling such a treasury is truly awesome for anyone who would convey blessing. It follows that this experience of awe must begin with the one who blesses: whether Birkat Kohanim with full dukhenen or a spontaneous blessing weaved in the moment, the path of blessing begins with the bestower’s lived experience of love and awe. Where we who convey blessing cannot go, we cannot bring anyone else.
But how to go there—really go there—when concepts and intellectual understandings are so inadequate? One helpful practice for the giver of blessing is to recall precisely that, as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi observed, all theology is an “afterthought of the believer,” a feeble attempt to graft language onto experiences and ideas inherently transcending language.33 “All creedal formulations” of religion, including those of Judaism, “are at best puny attempts at speaking of the cosmic.”34 For that reason, we must hold our ideas about God loosely and allow consciousness to flow, rather than embrace any false fixity about God or holiness.
A second helpful practice is to stop and breathe the letters yod-hei-vav-hei. Because these letters represent sounds of breath, this practice can cultivate inner awareness and spiritual access to God as the Breath of Life flowing through us all. In this understanding, God is as close as our next breath.
A third practice is to cultivate genuine love and awe in our own lives—and thereby lower our inner resistance to the flow of divinity—with an authentic and ongoing spiritual practice of our own. Our practice may include personal prayer, meditation, or hitbod’dut.35 Hashpa·ah, the modality of Jewish spiritual direction attuned to discerning and priming divine flow (shefa) in and through our lives, is an especially helpful way to experience in our lives the truth attributed to Menaḥem Mendel, the Kotzker rebbe (1787–1859): “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.”36 By letting God into our lives in these real and experiential ways, we can prime the flow of love and awe by which truly transformative blessing can unfold organically.
A fourth helpful practice invites an exercise of projecting imagery onto the recipient of blessing. Before offering Birkat Kohanim or any other blessing, imagine the name—this time, the Tetragrammaton—literally placed on the recipient of blessing, in the way that Birkat Kohanim suggests. Arranging the Hebrew letters yod, hei, vav, and hei vertically along the body from the head down the torso, the letters would hint at a human form:37
As a tool of focusing one’s intention at the moment of blessing, this image can “remind us that we are [made] in the Divine Image, and that the energies of the letters which manifest ultimate divinity also flow through us.”38 This practice, in turn, can remind that as a being created in the image of God, every recipient of blessing already bears the name of God. Thus, the true role before any conveyer of blessing is not so much to “place” the name of God, as the Priestly Blessing invites, but rather to “see” the name already there—already manifest on the body, heart, and soul of everyone whom one would bless. Like the inner vision that Moses cultivated on Mount Sinai when God proclaimed the thirteen attributes, the bestower of blessing can deploy inner vision to see divinity already inhering in whomever he or she blesses in and with God’s name.
What’s more, we can imagine this name as equally visible to others. What if everyone could see the shem ha-m’forash, the Tetragrammaton, already placed on everyone else? What if everyone could see that everyone is inherently created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image? This would hearken back to the hasidic teaching, attributed to Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav, of the tainted grain. In this parable, the world was going mad from eating tainted wheat. A king and his prime minister decided to consume the tainted wheat, so that they would not starve, but they also decided to mark their foreheads—so that each others’ marks would also remind them that they were going mad.39 If all of us could see the divine name on everyone, all would see that we come ready-marked not for madness but for a profound sanity our world has never known. One who can see the potential of that world can transmit its transformative power in blessing.
Such a world is not beyond reach, nor is it merely potential: it exists already in the ineffable realm of atzilut, the world of spirit transcending duality and imperfection, the Source of Blessing in which the illusion of separateness truly melts into unity. In this realm of spirit, we need not imagine that we are connected: we truly are, existentially, because in atzilut division and disconnection do not exist. In atzilut, we are within the benevolent vastness of God, the infinitude of existence itself beyond any concept or image accessible to the human mind. We melt into the experience of divine love.
Centuries of Jewish mystics have observed that the Hebrew letters of the word “me,” ani (alef-nun-yod), are the same as the letters of the word “nothing,” ayin (alef-yod-nun), also known as Ein Sof (“without end”),40 the highest kabbalistic rendition of the divine Infinite from which all creation flows.41 In wisdom attributed to the Maggid of Mezritch (1710–1772), successor of the Baal Shem Tov, “all beings return to the divine Nothingness (Ayin) through the process of d’veikut,” cleaving to God with all one’s heart and soul.42 By this spiritual cleaving, the Maggid taught, one draws divine inflow (shefa) through oneself into the world.43 Others understand spiritual return to God not as cleaving to God but rather as immersing oneself so totally in God that one achieves bittul ha-yeish (the diffusion of one’s independent selfhood into the Divine), so that one’s personal ani merges into the infinite Ayin.44 Whether we understand this spiritual experience as cleaving to God or diffusing into God, when we temporarily surrender our individual “I” to the Infinite divine Ayin in this way, we approach the realm of atzilut, from which flows the greatest power to transmit blessing. In the language of spiritual cleaving, Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak of Berditchev (1740–1810) taught: “The blessed Holy One constantly causes the flow of holiness (mashpi·a tamid shefa), so all worlds flow from [i.e., have their source in] Ayin.” In turn, one can harness the fullest power of blessing “when one cleaves with all one’s power to Ayin.”45
These mystical understandings offer a profound approach to Birkat Kohanim, by reading God’s subsequent reference to ani (“and I will bless them”) as the Ayin of God’s benevolent infinitude. When a bestower of blessing temporarily suspends the illusion of spiritual separateness and cleaves to (or diffuses into) God, that is how one can “place [God’s] name on the people Israel and [then Ayin] will bless them” (Numbers 6:27). A giver of blessing who experiences this suspension of spiritual boundaries can become a vessel for holy Oneness, and the Ayin that is God’s constant flow of holiness can permeate that Oneness into lived reality.
To be sure, because the world of atzilut defies precise language, any description ultimately will miss the point—or, worse, obscure the point. Anyone who has ever experienced transcendence knows that words fail to describe the experience. No words can fully describe experiences that envelop us so completely that we temporarily surrender our individuality and emerge touched and changed. These experiences invite countless words of explanation, but ultimately they leave us wordless: they are the stuff of awe, the realm of atzilut. It is this realm of the inexplicable—the wordless surrender to “wow”—to which anyone aspiring to bless in God’s name must become open so the power of transformation emanating from that realm can flow through.
This way of bestowing Birkat Kohanim models how we all can become conveyers of blessing. By connecting deeply and experientially to both love of God and love of another, we can become vessels to transmit the love and awe that are the power of every blessing. In the deepest sense, love and awe are the blessings we place as the name of God in the exquisite moment of blessing, when the Infinite that is God and the “I” that is each of us become one. In the merit of our legacy of Birkat Kohanim, may each of us become vessels to transmit the name of God in this way—and thereby become true partners with the Holy One of Blessing.
1 In the most literal sense, one who speaks the words of Birkat Kohanim, or any blessing, does so as God’s physical representative and thereby serves as God’s “symbolic exemplar.” See generally Jack Bloom, Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Invested in Me (Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 2002).
2 See generally Ezra 7:1.
3 See, e.g., Reuven Chaim Klein, “Was Ezra a High Priest?” in Jewish Bible Quarterly 41:3 (2013), pp. 182–184; cf. also M. Parah 4:1.
4 Eliezer Berkovits, Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha (New York: KTAV 1983), p. 69.
5 B. Yoma 69b.
6 B. Megillah 25a.
7 See, e.g., Gershom Scholem, “The Meaning of Torah in Jewish Mysticism,” in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965), p. 40.
8 See Rashi to Numbers 6:27, s.v. v’samu et sh’mi.
9 B. Yoma 39b.
10 Rav Giddel was a talmudic sage of the late third century C.E. It is especially noteworthy that he figures prominently in the rabbinic response to Ezra invoking of the name of God. Rav Giddel taught laws of t’vilah (ritual bathing) at the gates of bathhouses where women assembled, an apparent breach of modesty; when asked about this seemingly unusual practice, Rav Giddel replied that he was unafraid because his passion did not control him. See B. Berakhot 20a. Even this task-oriented Rav Giddel insisted that it was not just appropriate but also necessary for Ezra to invoke God’s name, ostensibly to arouse passion and awe.
11 B. Yoma 69b. Halakhically speaking, hora·at sha·ah is best understood as a judicial principle of limited focus, a so-called “emergency principle” that may suspend a legal norm temporarily given the great pressure of a time-limited circumstance. See, e.g., Alan J. Yuter, “Hora’at Sha’ah: The Emergency Principle in Jewish Law and a Contemporary Application,” in Jewish Political Studies Review 13:3–4 (Fall 2001), pp. 2–3. In perhaps its most classical rendition, hora·at sha·ah may seek “to bring people at large back to the Jewish faith,” even to the extent of nullifying a positive mitzvah or violating a negative mitzvah for that purpose. See Maimonides, M.T. Hilkhot Mamrim 2:4. By design, therefore, hora·at sha·ah should be invoked sparingly, lest this exception swallow whatever halakhic rule might be suspended in its service; cf. M.T. Hilkhot Mamrim 2:8. Beyond legal formalism, however, hora·at sha·ah operates as an energetic principle by which to discern a holistic trajectory for “paradigm shifting” social, legal, and spiritual developments based on pressing “needs of the hour” with sweeping transformational potential. See Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Siegel, Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including (Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2007), p. 29. If bringing people back to faith and spiritual attunement may justify a suspension of even Torah law within the four corners of halakhah, then a fortiori that goal must rivet and motivate the heartfelt intention of spiritual leaders who would convey blessing in tradition’s name.
12 Pesikta D’rav Kahana, ed. Bernard Mandelbaum (1962; rpt. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1987), pp. 40a–b, quoting Isaiah 43:10.
13 Martin Buber, On Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1967), p. 84.
14 The Yiddish word for conveying Birkat Kohanim, dukhenen derives from the Hebrew noun dukhan, the cultic “platform” where priests stood in Temple times. See, e.g., B. Shabbat 118a.
15 See generally Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society 1993), p. 62; Sandor S. Feldman, “The Blessing of the Kohenites,” in The Psychodynamics of American Jewish Life, ed. Norman Kiell (New York: Twayne, 1967), pp. 403–430.
16 This practice of “barefoot blessing” derives from Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai in one of the earliest strata of post-biblical Jewish law and custom; see B. Sotah 40a.
17 To be sure, God spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11), and “there never again arose a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). Likewise, God spoke to Moses “mouth to mouth” rather than by parable or dream (Numbers 12:8). While these verses depict an intimacy between God and Moses unparalleled in Jewish textual tradition, the verses depict God—and not Moses—as the One who speaks and knows “face to face” and “mouth to mouth.” Far from passive in his relationship with God, Moses also spoke directly to God—a practice we can emulate in hitbod’dut, as described below—but textually not even Moses could see God’s “face.”
18 In this spirit, Rabbi Akiva banned the people from looking at the priests during Birkat Kohanim—hence the modern practice of obscuring the giver of blessing’s face with a tallit. See Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, p. 63, and cf. B. Ḥagigah 16a.
19 The Torah records that God instructed Moses: v’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham, “They shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). This verse emphasizes that God would dwell not only within the physical structure of the sanctuary but also among the people—and even b’tokham, “within them.” Even so, the Tent of Meeting was the “place of meeting” between God and the people (Exodus 29:42), which begs the question of why any physical place should be necessary if God “dwells among” or “dwells within” the people. While answers to this timeless question are beyond the scope of this essay, we can understand the physicality of the dukhenen rituals, and especially the outstretching of hands, as evocative of the ancient priestly service in the mishkan, which served to evoke the indwelling of the Divine Presence that our ancestors experienced and narrated in such physical terms.
20 Zohar III 117a, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5.
21 See, e.g., Shohama H. Wiener, “Love is the Answer: A New Paradigm,” in Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, eds. Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), vol. 2, p. 312, citing Sifrei Devarim §32 on Deuteronomy 6:5.
22 Zohar III 147b.
23 Proverbs 14:10.
24 If this axiom is not self-evident, the numerical value of yod-hei-vav-hei, the Tetragrammaton, is twenty-six, equal to the numerical value for eḥad (“one”) and ahavah (“love”), each of which is thirteen. The essence of God is unity in love.
25 Maimonides, Commentary on Pirkei Avot 1:6.
26 This is not to diminish the emotional and psychological importance of healthy boundaries. A selfless love that unifies in a manner befitting holiness is not possible in a context of co-dependence, abuse, or other damaging behavior.
27 S’fat Emet, drash for Purim 1873 (authors’ translation), quoting Sifra K’doshim 3:12 and Leviticus 19:18.
28 See S’fat Emet 106:8 (“The Feast of Booths is the [symbolic] representation of the mishkan”); see also Amos 9:11.
29 Adapted from Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. William W. Hallo (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), part 2.
30 Quoted in Scholem, “The Meaning of Torah,” p. 39, n. 2. Similarly, in Scholem’s understanding: “Torah is interpreted as a mystical unity, whose primary purpose is not to convey a specific meaning but rather to express the immensity of God’s power, which is concentrated in [God’s] ‘name.’ To say that the Torah is a name does not mean that it is a name that might be pronounced as such, nor has it anything to do with any rational conception of the social function of a name. The meaning is, rather, that in the Torah God expressed transcendent Being, or at least that part or aspect of [God’s] Being that can be revealed to Creation and through Creation.…For [this] instrument which brought the world into being is far more than a mere instrument since…Torah is the concentrated power of God[’s] Self, as expressed in [God’s] name” (ibid., p.40).
31 Naḥmanides, “Introduction to Commentary on the Torah,” reprinted in Scholem, “The Meaning of Torah,” p. 38.
32 Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1988), pp. 99–100 (transliterations adapted).
33 Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “Deep Ecumenism” (a 1998 manuscript in private circulation), p. 9.
34 Ibid, p. 13.
35 Hitbod’dut is a practice of personal, spontaneous, and direct oral communication with God popularized by Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav. For modern guidance in hitbod’dut practices, see e.g. Howard Cohen, “Spiritual Development in Nature: Methods of Individual and Group Hashpa’ah,” in Seeking and Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Guidance and Development, eds. Goldie Milgram and Shohama Harris Wiener (2d ed.; New Rochelle, NY: Reclaiming Judaism Press, 2014), pp. 74–77; and Yitzhak Buxbaum, Jewish Spiritual Practices (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990), pp. 610–615.
36 The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, ed. Simcha Raz and trans. Edward Levin (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995), p. 10.
37 Image reprinted with permission from Deborah Kerdeman and Lawrence Kushner, The Invisible Chariot: An Introduction to Kabbalah and Jewish Spirituality (Denver: Alternatives in Religious Education, 1986).
38 Marcia Prager, A Siddur for Erev Shabbat (Philadelphia: Pnai Or, 2009), p. ii.
39 Cf., e.g., Howard Schwartz, Reimagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the Rabbis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 171.
40 The words ayin and ein are homographs in Hebrew.
41 See, e.g., Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; rpt. New York: Schocken Books, 1995), p. 218; Zohar I 23a.
42 Joseph Ben-Shlomo, “Gershom Scholem on Pantheism in the Kabbalah,” in, Gershom Scholem: The Man and His Work, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 68.
44 See Zohar II 42b.
45 Sefer K’dushat Levi, ed. S. Berger (Tel Aviv: Mechon Hadrat Ḥein, 2004), vol. 2, p. 152 (authors’ translation), citing B. Rosh Hashanah 10b.