This post is modified from a sermon preached at Rainbow on January 1, 2017 called “A handy blessing.”
I am not entirely certain what constitutes a blessing. Is it any more than just a nice-sounding, empty platitude? Just the word blessing is one of those words that can sound so cliche and bothersome, especially when people use the word “blessed” just to brag about their good fortune.
This is described nicely by Jessica Bennet in her NY Times article: “There’s nothing quite like invoking holiness as a way to brag about your life. But calling something “blessed” has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy. Blessed, “divine or supremely favored,” is now used to explain that coveted Ted talk invite as well as to celebrate your grandmother’s 91st birthday. It is carried out in hashtags (#blessed), acronyms (#BH, for the Hebrew “baruch hasem,” which means “blessed be God”), and even, God forbid, emoji.”
So, while I’m cognizant of how cliche talk of blessings can sound, I’m not ready to wave goodbye to the offering and receiving of blessings. That’s because every time we gather to dedicate and bless children, every time someone is baptized, every time I touch the forehead of someone sick or dying and offer the ancient words of blessing from Numbers 6:22-27, I don’t render these acts of blessing as meaningless. Rather, I experience these acts of blessing, though ultimately mysterious, as ways for us to invoke the power, the name, and eternal love of God. Blessings are a way for us to spread the love of God to one another, using our hands and our voices.
Speaking of hands, recently my husband and I watched a documentary about Mr. Spock, an examination of Leonard Nimoy and his portrayal of Spock in the 1960s iconic TV series Star Trek. At one point there is a discussion about the origin of the Vulcan hand greeting/blessing. By now it is well known that the idea for the hand greeting came from Nimoy’s early memories/contact with Orthodox Jews. Nimoy recalled times when the men of the congregation, known as “Kohen” (descendants of Aaron), would place their prayer shawls over their heads, raise their hands in the way made famous by the Vulcan hand greeting, and repeat the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6. This made an impression on Nimoy, so much so that on set one day, he suggested that this hand blessing be incorporated in the TV series.
Hebrew scholars point out that this hand gesture or blessing mirrors the Hebrew letter Shin (ש), which has three upward strokes similar to the position of the thumb and fingers in the Vulcan salute. In Judaism, the letter Shin stands for El Shaddai, meaning “Almighty (God).”
Here is another visual representation of this hand blessing:
I have to wonder what Orthodox Jews think of Star Trek’s popularization of an ancient gesture of blessing. I suppose one “blessing” in all this is that I doubt if there is a single Star Trek fan who would render this greeting/blessing as old-fashioned or cliche. It’s become a way of sharing space (pun intended) with greater respect, dignity, integrity, and kindness.
And that, in the end, is what I hope the offering and receiving of blessings do. In a year when so many harsh words have been spoken and shared in public discourse and across political and economic and racial divides, I think we would do well to think about how we might learn to bless the space between us with greater kindness and care, using our hands and voices.
I now offer this prayer of blessing from Numbers 6 as we begin a New Year together. If it helps to imagine me saying this while channeling Mr. Spock, so be it:
May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord’s face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May Lord’s countenance be upon you, and give you peace.