It has been decades now since I first heard the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis speak to a rabbinical convention I attended. In this particular talk, Rabbi Schulweis taught that too often, parents viewed their children as “naches producers.” When parents get together, what do they do? They brag about their children’s accomplishments.
The old saw, of course, is about “my son, the doctor,” but any accolade will do. Parents will tout their children’s grades, their sports statistics, their musical genius, their theatrical skills, their friends, their ambitions as if they were their own. The proper response is to all this is, “What naches (joy, satisfaction) you must get!”
Rabbi Schulweis lamented the fact that parents did not simply just indicate that they loved their children unconditionally, regardless of their accomplishments or despite their deficits.
The sages of the Rabbinic Period wisely recognized this difficulty. They provided a means by which parents could safely declare their love for their children. They ritualized it by suggesting that each week, parents recite a passage from this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the Priestly Benediction. In the context of the reading for this week, this benediction was to be recited by the priests over the people. The benediction blesses the people with the prayer that God will bless and keep them, that they will experience God’s light and grace, and that God will look directly upon them and grant them peace. The object of each blessing, as it were, is second person singular, so that everyone hearing it would consider it as if it were pronounced over him/her.
This short prayer recited by the priests of old was transformed by the notion that all Israel is a nation of priests, ministering to the entire world, as the priests had ministered to them. As a nation of priests, anyone could recite this series of blessings, and Shabbat evening was the perfect opportunity to do so as the family sat down at the table, symbolic of the altar, in their homes, which were considered miniature sanctuaries.
When a parent fulfills the ritual of blessing the children, it is a way of saying to them that they are loved unconditionally. They do not have to bring home straight A’s or blue ribbons or any other accolades in order to receive their parents’ love. They are loved for who they are, not for what they do.
To begin Shabbat, the day of being rather than of doing, with this blessing of the children provides them with the security of knowing that they are loved, that their parents bless them, even when it seems as if it is difficult to say the words “I love you.”
May we all be so blessed as to feel this type of unconditional love in our lives.
Rabbi Josef A. Davidson, affiliated with Congregation B’nai Amoona, is retired and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.