Birkat Kohanim: A Guide to Parenting
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Part 1 of this three-part series, Rabbi Fohrman reminds us about a short section we've heard many times, but intriguingly, explores the possibility that buried within these familiar words could be the Torah's guide to parenting.
One of the problems with having children is that they do not come with instruction manuals. The Torah is a great instruction manual for life. So we might ask, is there an instruction manual within it for parenting? I want to suggest that there is a parenting manual. It's only three verses long and in those three verses is just about everything that you need to know, to parent your child, or at least the seeds of everything you need to know.
What are the three verses and how do they instruct us? I would like to suggest that they are the verses of birchat kohanim, the blessing of the kohanim are meant to bestow upon the people of Israel. That blessing was first commanded to Aaron and his sons and at the conclusion of the dedication of the tabernacle, the kohanim were meant to convey a blessing, a blessing from God to the Jewish people. Since that time, parents have adopted that blessing, traditionally on Friday night when we bless our children with those three verses of the kohanim blessed us as a nation with.
I would like to suggest that those three verses, the three verses that we parents say weekly to our children is not just a blessing. As to how God should treat them but by extension, a kind of manual as to how we should treat our children. Let's jump in now.
Here are the verses, yevarechecha Hashem v'yishmerecha, we usually translate this 'may God bless you, keep you and may he watch over you'. Yaer Hashem panav eleicha vihunecha, 'let God shine his face upon you and grant you grace'. Yisa Hashem panav eleicha 'let God lift his face towards you', v'yasem lecha shalom, 'and grant you peace'.
Now when we think about these three verses, they kind of strike us as biblical poetry. Biblical poetry is hard to understand even under the best of circumstances. Its poetry first of all, it is written in another language, second of all and in very general overarching terms, these verses seem to be suggesting or praying that God should have some sort of positive influence and involvement in our lives but can we nail it down a little bit more specifically than that?
So let's try it and let's begin with some very basic questions.
For example, how do each of these verses differ from each other, are they just kind of saying the same things in different words or are they saying three different things and if so, what are they? Notice for example that the expression, panim, appears often but it appears only in the second two verses, panim means face, it does not appear in the first verse. Is there a reason for that?
And if we can discern a difference between the three different verses, is there a progression between them? Does verse one lead to verse two in any kind of way, does verse two lead to verse three, how do the verses connect? These are the questions I want to focus on with you.
We answer those questions effectively, we will not just find windows into the textual problems here with how the blessings hang together but we will also understand how they guide us as parents.
Here's blessing number one, yevarechecha Hashem v'yishmerecha, 'may God bless you and keep you'. The first question you have to ask is what does the word 'Bless' really mean? It is a nice spiritual sounding word, can we pin it down?
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a principle student of the Gra, the Vilna Gaon, lived a few centuries ago. He writes about this in his classic work Nefesh HaChayim. He argues that the word blessing doesn't just sort of have vague, spiritual qualities but has a very concrete meaning in the sense of increase.
The word 'Blessing' is associated with the idea of multiplying, increasing something. When we ask God to bless something, we are asking him to increase it. So for example, in Deuteronomy chapter 7, when it says, uberach pri-betnecha upri-admatecha, that God will bless the fruit of your womb, will bless the fruit of the earth, it means that he will increase these things. You will have lots of children, you will have plenty of food coming from crops and indeed that notion of blessing has been associated with increase is actually hinted at in the very letters that comprise the word. The word bracha comes from the three letter root, barech, bet, resh, chaf. And you may be familiar with the notion that the various letters of the Hebrew alphabet are associated with numeric values; aleph associated with one, bet associated with two, gimmel three and so on, and if you follow these numerical values known as gamatria you can see kind of a pattern here in this word bet numerical value as two, resh, the numerical value is 200, chaf, the numerical value is 20. They are all about two's, two's are the numbers of multiplicity increasing, increasing in the ones, increasing in the tens, increasing in the hundreds, it s all about increase.
So if you think about this word in the context of the blessing of the kohanim and on the context of parenting, you might say that we are asking God to be a wonderful parent to us. What does it mean to be a wonderful parent? Very first thing, it means is to bless your child, to seek to multiply their strength, to build them up in whatever ways we can. It is the fundamental obligation of parenthood. To build up a child's physical strength, to nourish that by feeding them, to build up their emotional strength, to give them resilience, to build up their intellectual strength or education, to build up their moral strength by helping them to discern right from wrong in all sorts of ways, to build up their own power to provide, to provide for their families by giving them the tools to learn a trade, to learn a profession.
Our fundamental job as a parent is to increase our children in all sorts of ways and whatever ways we can, to help them grow but that's not the only obligation we have because it is coupled with another one, yevarechecha Hashem v'yishmerecha, 'may God bless you and keep you'. Yishmerecha means to watch over you, to guard you.
The second fundamental obligation of parents which goes intendment with blessing is watching over them, ensuring their safety, keeping them from harm. Sometimes that harm can come from the outside. You give your kid rules, only cross at the crosswalks. Look both ways. Sometimes the harm can come from the inside, children can veer off in irresponsible directions and there the need to discipline the child emerges, to protect them, sometimes from themselves. But discipline is always a function of keeping the child safe in some way or another. It is really the only rational for discipline, you don't discipline a child for your needs as a parent, you don't discipline them because they make you look funny in front of them all or what will the neighbors say if junior acts out like this? That is not for the kid, that's for you. The rational for discipline is to watch over them, so that they can grow. Yevarechecha v'yishmerecha, 'Bless and watch over'.
So these are the first two fundamental obligations of parenting but they are not the last. The rest of birkat kohanim outlines the rest of the parenting package, what else it is that we are required to do with respect to our child.
What are the next two fundamental phages of parenting, 'Let God shine his face upon you and grant you grace', how is it different from what comes next, 'Let God lift up his face towards you and grant you peace'.
The theory that I would like to suggest to you is that hidden within birkat kohanim, expressed within these words, are three different aspects of parenting that build on each other. You can't get to the second phage without doing the first and you can't get to the third without doing the first two. The fundamentals are blessing and watching over you but that opens up a door. It gives you the ability to move on to the next stage of parenting and once you get there and you master stage number two, it gives you the ability to achieve the third level and to integrate with that to relate with your child as well.
Each of these three phases of parenting, I want to suggest to you is associated with a certain phase in the child's life. At different phases, different kinds of parenting are more appropriate than the others. So if blessing a child and guarding over them is something we must do as parents throughout a child's life, is there a particular phase within a child's life when those obligations are most prevalent. Let me ask you this, when do they begin these obligations, to bless and to guard over? Many of us might say that they begin at birth but I would like to argue that, that's wrong. They actually begin before birth, they begin in the womb. Indeed that's what a womb does. The fundamental job of the womb is to increase a child to literally physically build them up to build the child. That is the source of the idea of blessing and the womb is also the source for the idea of guarding, of watching over because the other thing the womb does is it provides a pristine environment that protects the child from all sorts of harm. It gives them a place, a safe place in which they can grow.
Throughout a child's life we have those two obligations to provide a safe place for our children and help to build them but those obligations start in the womb and in fact if you think about it deeply, those two obligations, yevarechecha v'yishmerecha to bless and to guard, actually boil down to one Hebrew word, a word that is derivative from the word for womb.
What is the word for womb in Hebrew? It is rechem. There's a quality that parents evince towards the child and we call it rachamim. Rachamim is compassion. Compassion has two sub-categories, what does it mean to have compassion upon someone? It means to nurture them, to help them grow and to keep them safe so that they can grow. That's what the womb does, that's what compassion is. But compassion is not the only thing that we do as parents. A good parent does more, because if compassion is the fundamental building block of parenthood, you can build on those blocks. And that brings us to the next two parts of birkat kohanim.
So, what are they about? I'd like you to think about that.