Among the events recorded in this week’s Torah portion is the initiation of sacrifice, the first communal worship of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Having been prepared both in procedure and in all the necessary elements, Aaron and his sons are consecrated as kohanim — priests — with the offering of the first sacrifice. The text tells us that after he arranged multiple animals on the altar: “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.”
This “lifting of hands” is reminiscent of a tradition that passes through generations of kohanim in the days of the Tabernacle and then the First and Second Temples. It is reflected in the maintenance of a priestly line in Jewish families to this day. Among the most sacred continuing functions of the kohain is the responsibility to bless the people of Israel. Done differently in various communities of Jews, and depending on locations inside of the land of Israel or in the Diaspora, this blessing always includes the aspect of “lifting of hands.”
Though the full blessing and procedure will be fleshed out in the book of Numbers, our parshah alludes to the physical element of the blessing, the hands used to convey God’s blessing. The next verses tell us: “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. All the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”
This was the very first manifestation of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice offered on behalf of the priests and on behalf of the people as a whole — an awesome moment to be sure! In a beautiful comment, Nefesh Yehonatan points out a difference between the way that the Torah is written in Leviticus 9:22 and the way that it is to be read. The ketiv or written text for “his hands” is yud-daled-vav, yielding yado, or the singular “his hand.” But it is read as yud-daled-yud-vav — yadav, “his hands.”
The commentator notes: “Israel is blessed when they are united in fellowship. Accordingly, Aaron’s two hands were made as one. All of the hands [of the priests] were made into one hand, outstretched to the heavens to bring down upon Israel the flow of blessings from the highest places.”
While it is traditionally the kohanim who stretch out their hands in blessing before the congregation when they pronounce the words of the Priestly Benediction, the custom has developed that we include these words and this aspect of blessing with hands when we gather our children to bless them before the Shabbat or festival meal. Making us a “nation of priests,” we place our hands upon the heads of our next generations, bringing God’s blessing upon them and stretching back to the moment when the entire people first witnessed a confirmation of that blessing, the sacred fire that emanated from God in this week’s Torah portion.
We pray that our outstretched hands will bring blessing, unity, acceptance and holiness — that our hands together with all of the hands stretched forth in kindness will become as one, causing blessing to flow on us and all Israel.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.