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In many ways it was a perfect vacation in America. For almost a week I slept in a cabin on the bank of a bubbling brook, picture postcard perfect. The rest of the time was spent with old friends and dear relatives. Still, there was something a little off, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I wasn’t truly homesick. My husband was at my side. My children and friends were a short text message away. What was I missing?
On Shabbat morning, in the middle of synagogue services, I had my answer. Following the repetition of the silent devotion an integral part of the worship was glossed over. The Kohanim, translated as the priests, did not rise to recite HaShem’s threefold blessing.
May HaShem bless you and safeguard you, Numbers 6:24
May HaShem illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you, Numbers 6:25
May HaShem lift His countenance to you and give you peace, Numbers 6:26
There are many commentaries on these three blessings. Among my favorites are the fact that HaShem, using the Kohanim as conduits, gives these blessing unconditionally. He also gives them with love and the Kohanim are supposed to feel at peace with the congregation and feel joy while reciting them.
That joy is so important that Rabbi Elie Munk writes in The Call of the Torah: In the diaspora we recite the priestly blessing only on festivals, when there is a special feeling of joy and heightened awareness. In Israel, there are no restrictions; that special joy is present every day in the Holy Land.
In many congregations in Israel the Kohanim rise daily, cover their heads with their prayer shawls, face the congregation with their fingers spread in front of their faces and bless the worshippers. In turn the worshippers avert their eyes, unwilling to gaze on the Divine Presence that is represented by the Kohanim’s hands.
And this is what I was missing. I had two lovely Shabbats in the diaspora. The congregations I visited were full of kind people who attended Torah classes and greeted visitors warmly into their midst. Still, when it came time for the threefold priestly blessing, the one leading the prayers read it as he read the rest of the service. The joy of being in Israel was missing. That’s what I had lacked.
I’m home again now. There’s no place like home. Especially if home is in the land of Israel. How I wish my old friends and dear relatives would come home, also. Not for a vacation, almost perfect or not, but to live and to be able to know the joy of hearing the priestly blessing on a regular basis.