By Susan Laemmle June 11, 2022
After the death of our grandchild in November, among the expressions of comfort spoken was yehi shmah barucha: May Esther’s memory be a blessing. Seven months later, I begin to understand the complex richness conveyed in those three Hebrew words.
“May their memory be a blessing” comforts the mourner while honoring the memory of the person they mourn. It asks something for the dead while also acknowledging — and ideally easing the pain of — the living. This short sentence is, in itself, a kind of blessing.
What does it mean though for blessing to flow when we remember someone who’s died? And how does that connect to other situations in which human beings convey or receive blessing? In this Dvar Torah, I’ll consider these questions, then focus on the influential blessing contained in Parshat-Naso — Birkat Cohanim, the Priestly Benediction — and finally come to rest on an important, in a way revolutionry context in which Birkat Cohanim appears.
In a religious environment, uttering a blessing acknowledges God as its source. Blessing is a common religious act in virtually all belief systems — indispensable in celebrations, initiations, and rites of passage. Blessing generated by remembering refers to the continuing benediction that a dead person leaves behind — from their good deeds, teachings and example; perhaps also from their sheer life force, their having been a vital person in the world, whose vitality touched our own. Wishing someone fond memories of their loved one to sustain them through their grief can be helpful, but it is something different. Esther’s memory being a blessing refers to the continuing positivity that the world derives and that continues to enrich Esther’s collected legacy into eternity.
If a deceased person can radiate blessing upon the living, then can’t living people achieve a similar effect? Genesis Rabbah teaches that Abraham blessed everyone and was constantly blessed in return, and that his ability to bless was passed on to Isaac. And Megillah 15a states that “the blessing or curse of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly.”
Overall, Judaism does not reserve the power to bless to a specific class of Jews. And yet Parshat Naso establishes the Aaronite Priesthood’s power of blessing the Jewish People within a specified envelope of instruction: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them . . . Here comes the three-fold Birkat Cohanim itself and then: And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel and I will bless them.”
Most commentators take the final avarchem — “I [that is, God] will bless them” — as referring not to the priests being blessed by God after they bless the people, but rather to the people gaining God’s blessing as a result of the priests channeling it. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “There are no magic powers inherent in the priest or in the blessing. The intention of the one who pronounces it is an essential part of the blessing; indeed, it is their attitude that turns the formula into a blessing.”
And yet, Birkat Cohanim itself has great power — in a way that Nechama Leibowitz succinctly articulates: “The three sections of the priestly benediction illustrate an ascending order, starting with human beings’ material needs, then dealing with our spiritual wants, and finally reaching a climax combining both these factors together, crowning them with a blessing of peace. This ascending order and increasing surge of blessing is reflected in the language and rhythm. The first phrase consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven.”
The rhetorical and spiritual power of the words themselves, along with their ancient lineage going back to Temple days, communicated itself beyond Judaism to Christian and other settings. And within Judaism, Birkat Cohanim became increasingly decentralized, with shlechai-tzibur as well as rabbis and cantors summoning it to bless congregants, wedding couples, and bnai-mitzvah.
Years ago, one of my children suddenly became fearful before falling asleep, even with a regular bedtime ritual that included reading aloud and lullabies. Wracking my brains to come up with something potentially helpful, I drew up from Jewish wellsprings the bedtime Shma. To this I added Birkat Cohanim, although it’s not part of the traditional Shma al ha-mitah. The effect was near magical; within a couple of days, sleep came without resistance, derived from a feeling of safety not achievable through music, literature, and parental presence alone.
On my end though, reciting the three sentences’ heavily gendered Hebrew hit me as it hadn’t before. Should I continue using language that was so heavily skewed as masculine when conveying blessing to a female child? On the spot, I transformed the final indirect object from l’cha to l’ach — which felt like a good compromise between truth and tradition.
In my opening preview, I said that this Dvar Torah would come to rest on an important, near-revolutionary context in which Birkat Cohanim appears. That context is when parents bless their children at the Shabbat or Holiday table. Could there be a more decentralized, democratized expansion of what was originally a responsibility of Judaism’s priestly class? Indeed, this expansion includes mothers as well as fathers in many Jewish homes.
As we know though, the traditional parental blessing begins in a strongly gendered way by taking Ephraim and Menashe as the model for boys and the four Matriarchs as that for girls. Until seven months ago, I hadn’t given this bifurcation a moment’s thought whenever I felt the Torah-based aura of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s children waft over all children present in our or another Jewish home. I had even taken upon myself to extend Blessing the Children to the family members who regularly participated in zoom Shabbat dinners throughout the first long Covid year. But when Esther’s sibling Rachel gently, respectfully queried my using the traditional formulation even after we had become aware of there being a “gender component” to Esther’s death, the scales fell from my eyes and I was unable to experience Blessing the Children in the same way.
Sometime after that, I found the section entitled “Queer or Chosen-Family Blessing for the Children” on Keshet’s website, to which I direct you for its full range of creative resourcefulness. In the end, I was not satisfied with Keshet’s way of simply combining Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah with Ephraim and Menasche. For as we all have been impelled to learn or at least hear, many young people see themselves as what English hasn’t found a better way of putting than “non-binary.” And so, I wound up adding Jonathan and Ruth to the list, as the best I could do for biblical figures who seem to have experienced closeness, even intimacy, across the gender divide.
For me then, what I’ve labeled the radicalism of ordinary Jewish parents blessing the young people of their household week in, week out, has become even more radical by becoming more inclusive. Or perhaps it’s just more truthful about, and accepting of, the variety of children who emerge into our families.
I conclude with hallowed language about blessing, not from a Jewish source but from Shakespeare. After Hamlet confronts his mother in the closet scene of Act III, he utters these luminous words: “Once more, good- night. And when you are desirous to be blest, I’ll blessing beg of you.” When the Cohanim blessed the people, surely blessings returned to them. When parents bless their children, do not these children bless them in their hearts?
May the circle of blessing that flows from God to human beings, and from earth into eternity, expand — bringing us peace and protection during these continuingly demanding, achingly irreplaceable times.