Mindfulness at Camp: Blessing Ourselves and Each Other

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by Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch, Assistant Director

On the final day of our first retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Educating for Jewish Spiritual Life cohort, our teacher, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, shared a meditation technique with us called a Blessing Practice. This practice can take many forms. In the Jewish context in which we learned this practice, we focused on the words of one of our oldest blessings, Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction).

We find the original text of Birkat Kohanim in one of our summer Torah portions, Parashat Naso, that we read nearly every year at camp. The text reads:

Y’verechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha
May God bless you and keep you
Ya’er Adonai panav elecha viy’chuneka
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you
Yisa Adonai panav elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom
May God look with favor upon you and grant you peace (Numbers 6:24-27)

We recite this blessing at many significant moments in Jewish life – at baby namings, weddings, and other moments of transformation. Many parents choose to offer this blessing to their children on Erev Shabbat (Friday evening), and we have adopted this tradition at camp in a beautiful way. As we sit down for Shabbat dinner together and bless the candles and grape juice, we come to a moment of blessing each other. Each camper, counselor, staff and faculty member wraps their arms around each other, and we offer these words of blessing to each other. 

This is such a powerful image and important moment for me and many others at camp, and I carry this memory with me whenever I hear or say Birkat Kohanim in another context. So when I recently did some further study of the Blessing Practice as a mindfulness tool, I couldn’t help but call to mind our Chadar Ochel (dining hall) filled with the loving embrace of campers and staff offering this blessing.

In connecting the Blessing Practice to Birkat Kohanim, Rabbi Bendat-Appell drew out six key words, two from each of the three lines of the blessing:

May God bless you and keep you: content, safe
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you: luminous, loved
May God look with favor upon you and grant you peace: happy, peaceful

The Blessing Practice is a practice of compassion and self-love. You can try the Blessing Practice anywhere, right now, where you are sitting. First, commit some or all of the phrases below to memory:

May I be content.
May I be safe.
May I be luminous.
May I be loved.
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.

After settling into your seat, close your eyes or lower your gaze. Focus on your breathing, and begin to focus on the phrases you remember.

Some find it helpful to tie each phrase to the act of inhaling or exhaling, or some may focus on just one or two phrases that particularly resonate.

For those interested in deeper study, you can listen to a teaching and recording of this practice.

My strongest image of Birkat Kohanim is of our weekly experiences at camp, a tradition from when I was a camper to this day. My husband, Rabbi Neil Hirsch, and I are expecting our first child, b’sha-ah tovah, this month. As we prepare to meet and welcome this new person into the world, I know that the words of Birkat Kohanim will factor prominently into our naming celebrations and our family Shabbat dinners. I will bring the layers of meaning and memory of both our camp tradition and this Blessing Practice to blessing my own child. And of course, I look forward to the day when we will be able to share this blessing together at camp!