By Rabbi Deborah Wechsler
Every generation has a new kind of encounter with God.
Therefore, every generation has a new kind of way of expressing that encounter and engaging with God. One way to refer to that expression and engagement
is prayer. And each of us finds our own way to do it.
In this week’s reading from the book of Bamidbar we see a new form of expression that enters the Biblical narrative and Jewish life, namely prayer. In earlier books of the Torah, most notably in Genesis and Exodus, we have seen individuals in prayer. Abraham prays to save the lives of those who might not even be worthy. Rebecca prays for the alleviation of her physical suffering. Isaac prays at night after meeting the God of his father. Leah prays for the affection of a husband. Jacob prays upon finding himself in sacred space. Rachel prays for children to love.
But here in Parshat Nasso is the first time we find a formal prayer, commanded to be said verbatim. It is known as Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction, and it has been recited from Biblical times until this very Shabbat.
To date, they are the oldest known texts of a passage from the Torah. We even have archaeological evidence of these words dating back to the year 600 BCE on an amulet discovered in 1979 in a valley near the old city of Jerusalem.
I expect that it may be a familiar blessing to you. We recite it for brides and grooms under the chuppah. We offer it to our children on Friday nights at the Shabbat table. At my synagogue, Chizuk Amuno Congregation, we offer it to our b’nai mitzvah and our children celebrating birthdays. We do that because it is both a personal wish and a communal wish.
These 15 words have a great deal to teach us about the nature of prayer. They teach us that, originally, Jewish prayer was spontaneous and personal. It was only later that formal set prayer became standard. They teach us that prayer is about relationships. They teach us that one prayer can mean many different things. Each one of us who says it or hears it experiences it in the way that it is unique to their moment in life and time. And finally, they teach us that we are part of a chain of people who desire prayer and engagement with God.
Rabbi Deborah Wechsler is a rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.