Wednesday, June 22, 2011

TOXIC AND HEALTHY CONFLICTS: PARASHAT KORACH: 2011/5771:


                        WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT KORACH:  2011/5771

TOXIC AND HEALTHY CONFLICTS

And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and they said: We shall not come up [to you—lo na’aleh]. … Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up [lo na’aleh]. (Num. 16:12-14).

The major theme of parashat Korach is the great rebellion against Moshe. As such, it is the archetypal biblical example of dissention [machloket]. Because of the ugly nature o the Korach rebellion, machloket has had very negative connotations, and has come to be regarded as a major social vice.

But machloket is an essential aspect human nature. According to the Maharal of Prague, it is the inescapable consequence of the human’s having been created in the Image of God [be-tzelem Elokim]. The divine image reflects God’s majesty and absolute autonomy. Creatively independent and self-sufficient, God enjoys unquestioned sovereignty. Reflecting this charismatic attribute, the human being, too, is sovereign. This was God’s mandate to the very first human beings. They were to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the heavens and every living thing that crawled on the face of the earth. (Gen. 1:28). Humans were endowed with majesty and power. But, according to the sages “no two kings can wear the same crown.” (B.T. Chullin 60b) Competition and conflict were thus inevitable.

Indeed, the first siblings, Cain and Abel, were fiercely competitive, with Cain eventually killing his brother. According to the Midrash, cited by the Maharal, there was far more at stake than simple jealousy.  The brothers were involved in a serious machloket about inheriting Adam’s sovereignty over the world (Gen. Rabbah 12:7, on Gen. 4:8).  The machloket between Jacob and Esau was not totally dissimilar. It was about succession to their father Isaac’s spiritual majesty and the promise of future national glory.

 Why then did Korach and his followers get such bad press?  Their claim appears to be no different from the claim made so many centuries earlier by other contenders for family power, influence and majesty.  If, according to the Maharal, this characteristic is hardwired into the human spiritual genetic structure, how could Korach and his followers be blamed for doing what all people created in the image of God are programmed to do? 

It would seem that the scriptural condemnation of the leaders of the rebellion was based upon Moshe’s response to their challenge.  Initially, he had allowed Korach and his followers a “cooling off” period, suggesting divine arbitration on the following day.  He then went even further, inviting two of the prominent leaders of the rebellion to meet with him, presumably to open a dialogue about resolving the conflict. However, his gesture was rebuffed.  Datan and Aviram rejected his invitation to talk: And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and they said: We shall not come up [to you]—[lo na’aleh]. … Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up [lo na’aleh]. (Num. 16:12-14). They uttered their bone-chilling repudiation of mutuality and understanding twice in the space of a single verse.  They arrogantly insisted lo na’aleh twice.  They left no room for conversation.  It was either to be their way or no way.  The implication of their arrogant lo na’aleh retort was: “Because we are right, you must be wrong.”

The Maharal points out that the word machloket is constituted by surrounding the Hebrew word chelek [portion] with the Hebrew letters mem and tav.  These letters form the Hebrew word met [dead].  A machloket about power and unreasonable claims to the portion [chelek] of another party often results in internecine conflict and death. (Netivot Olam, Netiv ha-Shalom I). This is the origin of war and unlawful encroachment on what belongs to another. It defined the toxic machloket of Korach and his followers against Moshe and his brother.

Fortunately, humankind is not exclusively programmed for this dangerous variety of machloket.  There is another type of machloket that is altogether positive.  Rabbinic literature is replete with what has been called machloket le-shem Shamayim [radical disagreement for the sake of heaven].  The rabbinic method of clarifying the truth is based upon dialogue between scholars who attack weaknesses in each other’s arguments, rejecting conclusions based upon premises that are deemed inaccurate.  The sages correctly declare that kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah [the zealous competitiveness of scholars increases wisdom]. (B.T. Bava Batra 21a). The ongoing conflict between the followers of Hillel and Shammai is the most striking example we have of machloket le Shem Shamayim. What one school declared pure, the other declared impure.  What one ruled permissible, the other ruled forbidden.  What one deemed kosher, the other deemed unfit for consumption or use.   So radical was the disagreement between the two schools, that the unity of conduct of the Jewish people was dangerously undermined.  Ultimately, a heavenly voice declared, “Eilu ve eilu divrei Elokim chayyim [both these and those are the words of the living God], but the law is according to the school of Hillel.”  (B.T.Eruvin 13b; Berakhot 6b).

The Maharal wonders how such radically conflicting opinions can equally represent an accurate grasp of the truth of the Torah. He suggests that we can live with this paradox only by accepting that God alone possesses absolute truth.  Humans are at best capable of grasping only limited aspects of the truth, just as invisible light reveals itself in the different colors of the spectrum when it is refracted through a diamond.  Each color is a facet of the light, but none is itself the whole light.  Pure light remains invisible to the naked human eye.   Similarly, both Hillel and Shammai each accurately and authentically grasped an aspect of the truth.  Each, therefore, was correct, although they were in radical disagreement each with the other.  The heavenly voice validated the relative nature of human understanding. But it also declared that the authority of the one side must prevail in order to preserve the religious unity of the Jewish people.

The notion of machloket le shem Shamayim underlies the fundamental structure of Jewish law.  The Mishnah presents the authoritative consensus of the majority as law, but it also preserves minority opinions, thus tacitly acknowledging the merits of the “loosing” sides’ positions. The Mishnah in this way reinforces the principal that the “truth” of one side’s conclusion was necessarily the outcome of fierce intellectual debate and honorably motivated argument and disagreement.  The great medieval halakhic decisors often dispute the views of their peers—as contemporary respondents also do in clarifying issues in Jewish law. The tradition of machloket le shem Shamayim has continued through the ages.

 Rabbi Jack Riemer recounts a tale about the great Chasidic master, Rebbe Naftali of Ropshitz.  The Ropshitzer claimed that he remembered an encounter with two angels just before he was born.  The first showed him the passages in the Talmud that say:  A scholar should be tough and unbending, like a flaming fire of wrath. (B.T. Shabbat 63a; Yoma 23a; Ta’anit 4a). The second angel showed him a contradictory Talmudic passage, indicating that a scholar should be gentle, and humble. (Shemot Rabbah 41).  The first angel then showed him the passage:  A man cannot become a scholar without sacrificing himself and his family for the sake of learning.  (B.T.Avot 6:4; Kallah 8a).  But the second angel showed him the passage that says that a person should be more concerned for the welfare of his family than for his own. (B.T. Chullin 84b).  Finally, the first angel showed him the passage that declared:  A person should be satisfied with a minimum of food and drink in this world. (B.T. Avot 6:4; Kallah 8a). But the other angel showed him the teaching that stated: A person who abstains from the pleasures created by God in this world is a sinner.  (B.T. Nedarim 10a).  “Ever since then,” said Rabbi Naftali, “I have tried to pay heed to the advice of both angels. I have tried my best to hold onto what they both say—at the same time.”
Human truth is partial and relative. We are often confronted with the tension of living with contradictory truths. Like the Ropshitzer, we have to learn to cope with the paradox that eilu ve eilu divrei Elokim chayyim [both these and those are the words of the living God].”

Machloket is as inescapable characteristic of the human experience. But we can sublimate our baser instincts. We can choose to become involved in machloket le shem Shamayim rather than in the toxic machloket exemplified by Korach and his followers.

The Maharal offers a third alternative. The virtue of shalom [peace] is the most admirable of conflict resolution strategies. The Hebrew letter shin of the word shalom has three “heads.” The outside “heads” represent the opposing extremes. The middle “head” symbolizes the compromise between the opposing positions. However, the middle “head” is not actually in the middle. It inclines more to one side than to the other. Compromise recognizes the merits of both disputants. It permits each side to feel itself the winner, graciously giving the other more than it really deserves. (Netiv ha-Shalom II).  It thus preserves the dignity of the divine image in both, making neither a loser, and allowing each a victory of sorts. It restores peace. It is the way of shalom.



Friday, June 17, 2011

ON STRONG DEFENSES: PARASHAT SHELACH LEKHA: 2011/5771



 WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT SHELACH LEKHA:  2011/5771


ON STRONG DEFENSES


And they said to Joshua: “For the Lord has given this entire land into our hand: furthermore, all the inhabitants of the land have melted away from before us. (Joshua 2:2).



In this parashah, Moses instructs twelve leaders of Israel to gather information about the population of the Promised Land (“are they strong or weak, few or many?”), its natural resources (“is it good or bad?”) and, most importantly, about its defense structure, the nature of its cities (“and what is the nature of the cities that they inhabit, are they open encampments or well fortified?”).  The despairing, pessimistic report of ten of these “spies” was based on their impressions of the local population and on their perception of the impenetrability of its defenses: “And the cities have very great fortifications.  Moreover we saw giants there.”(Num. 13:12)

Forty years later their perception was confirmed by the Israelites who were ready to attack. The first stronghold they encountered indeed appeared to be utterly impregnable: “And Jericho was closed and enclosed [to the children of Israel].  No one could depart or enter.” (Joshua 6:1)

The besieging Israelites could not have been surprised by this fact.  Unlike their predecessors forty years earlier, the anonymous pair of spies had encountered a remarkably vigilant enemy.   The twelve princes had been tourists rather than real spies.  They had traversed the country without challenge, free to make detailed observations and to carry samples of its agricultural bounty in full view.   In contrast, Joshua’s agents were detected by alert intelligence agents and hotly pursued.  They were compelled to seek shelter in a house of ill repute, finally escaping stealthily, like thieves in the night.   Even then they were not safe.  Pursued by skilled and well-armed trackers, they were forced to hide in the mountains for three stressful days before they felt safe enough to return to the Israelite camp.  But notwithstanding their personal encounter with the formidable defenses of Jericho, “they said to Joshua:  ‘For the Lord has delivered the entire country into our hand and, furthermore, all the inhabitants of the land have melted away from before us.’ ” (Joshua 2:22).

In a striking midrashic comment, the sages demonstrate remarkable insight about the uncanny military judgment of Joshua’s spies on the one hand and the woeful inexperience of Moses’  “spies” on the other:  “How could one know their strength?  Are they living in open encampments or in fortified towns?  If they dwell in open encampments, they are powerful and confident of their strength.  But if they dwell in fortified towns, they are weak and fainthearted.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Joshua 6). 

Moses’ spies had reached the erroneous conclusion that sophisticated and impenetrable fortifications reflect great power and daunting military preparedness.  Joshua’s spies made the counterintuitive and opposite inference.  The power of a people depends on its self-confidence and its belief in its aptitude and capacity to deal with challenges rather than upon its fortifications.  People who are unsure of themselves place their trust primarily in inert barriers.  They are afraid to venture into the open because they do not trust their offensive capabilities.

Significantly, modern Israel’s military doctrine is based upon its offensive strategies.  The one and only time it deviated from this doctrine was its reliance upon the fortified Bar lev Line at the beginning of the Yom Kippur war in 1973--and that was almost fatal. 
 

The insight of Joshua’s spies transcends the narrow sphere of military tactics.  It applies to life in all its facets. All human relationships are characterized either by defensiveness or openness. This is true on the level of the individual and also on the level of all human collectives—family, community, faith-group, interfaith and international.

Most individuals have suffered childhood hurts and disappointments. These experiences determine their view of the world, and the strategies they develop for their survival. A child who has been constantly criticized for underperforming, may learn that approval demands perfect performance, and may become an obsessive perfectionist. A child who has been pressured to confess to minor, even unintentional, “misdeeds”, and then cruelly punished for disclosing, may deduce that surviving depends on keeping everything secret. The likelihood of children with such experiences becoming open adults is small. Their fears, doubts, blemishes and vulnerabilities will remain concealed, even from their spouses. They will be self-enclosed, defended and distant. Since intimacy depends on mutual disclosure, empathic communication and reciprocal sharing, the couple will never really be close. Strong defenses are meant to keep people out. Healing requires jettisoning early, outmoded and dysfunctional defenses, and developing a healthy sense of self and the courage to trust those who really do care.

Consider the story of a family I knew: The head of the household had three siblings who were his business partners. A deal went sour and they lost much money. His siblings maintained their close relationship with the individual who had not only caused the loss but also besmirched his reputation. He felt betrayed by his siblings, left the partnership and went out on his own. He discouraged his children from having anything to do with their cousins, putting an invisible wall around his family to protect them from the pain of further betrayals.

 Unintentional hurts inflicted by the few people allowed to penetrate the defensive barriers were seen as deliberate betrayals, and the family became ever more isolated and secretive. Ultimately, nobody outside the  original nuclear family could be trusted.

Sadly, the pattern of family isolation became transgenerational. The family structures of the next generation were equally closed, although the original experience of betrayal had long since ceased to hurt. An immature defense against pain and disappointment had become a permanently dysfunctional way of life.

Just as families are open or closed, so are communities. Israel Zangwil aptly characterized prejudice as the dislike of the unlike. Although he was discussing anti-Semitism, his observation applies to all groups that are afraid or suspicious of those who differ from them in their mores and beliefs. The differences may be religious or even socio-economic. Some private clubs are closed both to Jews and to the working classes. No group or community is immune from this tendency. It is universal, applying equally to gentile and Jew. Fine congregations have in-groups and out-groups, with those on the community periphery often excluded from the celebrations of the elite core, and coreligionists with different lifestyles feeling unwelcome.

Interdenominational dynamics have similar characteristics. Sunni Moslems bomb Shia mosques, and Shia massacre Sunni. Brotherhood fanatics in Egypt burn Coptic churches. Catholics and Protestants have had their Thirty Year Wars, and the history of Christianity is littered with pogroms and expulsions of Jews. There is even a new term for process of closing societies in this way. It is called ethnic cleansing.

I did an experiment on prejudice many years ago in my native South Africa. Noted psychologist, Professor Hans Eysenck, had published the questionnaire he had developed to study ani-Semitism in Britain. I reprinted it, substituting the word “Black” for the word “Jew” throughout the document. I then distributed the new version to the members of my community. The results indicated widespread racial prejudice and fear of black people. The respondents were shocked to learn that they were doing a survey of anti-Semitism, and that they were as prejudiced and suspicious of blacks as prejudiced gentiles were against Jews. Indeed, had they been gentiles they might themselves have been anti-Semitic.


Fortunately, Jews have not indulged in ethnic cleansing. But non-orthodox pulpits regularly demonize the orthodox, and most orthodox rabbis shun contact with their non-orthodox colleagues. Official social interaction across denominational lines is rare. Fearful of the others and their potential toxic influence, Jews of different groups choose to isolate themselves behind invisible walls. The rationale is ideological, but the reason is fear and lack of self-confidence in their ability to flourish in a completely open environment. The barriers are of different dimensions. The highest effectively separates the community from the modern world and its presumably seductive and destructive pagan culture.


Fear is fear, and invisible walls of separation scarcely conceal weakness. Strong and confident people are open to the other and unthreatened by differences. In their view, indifference is far more threatening than difference.
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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

PARASHAT BE-HA’ALOTEKHA 2011/5771: HOLY DISSENT


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT BE-HA’ALOTEKHA:  2011/5771


HOLY DISSENT


And Yehoshua Bin Nun, the attendant of Moshe, answered and said:  ‘My master Moshe, shut them up [kela’em].’ (Num. 11:28).

The negative attitude and the stiff-neckedness of the Israelites was one of the greatest challenges faced by Moshe.  It began early, when the Israelite slaves lamented that he had aggravated their already intolerable situation.  Even after the miracle of the ten plagues, when the Egyptians pursued them to the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites complained bitterly.  Then, following their miraculous passage through the parted waters, they complained about the bitterness of the waters at Marah.  On the eve of their planned entry into the Promised Land, ten of the twelve spies fomented revolt.   His flock’s constant, bitter complaining ultimately led Moshe to strike the rock in anger and thus forfeit his role of leading them into the Promised Land.

 The poignant description of Moshe’s frustration with the chronic discontentment of his flock is one of the major themes of parashat be-He’alotekha.  He had followed the advice of Yitro, his father in law, and decentralized the nation’s judiciary, substantially easing his burden of leadership.  But this delegation of authority was insufficient: 

And the mixed multitude that was among them began to lust greatly:  And the children of Israel also wept along with them and said: ‘Would that we were given meat to eat:  We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic:  But now our soul is dried away: There is nothing at all:  We have nothing but this manna to look to’… and Moshe heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent:    And Moshe said to the lord:  ‘Wherefore have you dealt ill with your servant?  And wherefore have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this people upon me?  Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that you say to me:  ‘Carry them in your bosom like a nursing father carries the sucking infant, onto the land which you swore unto their fathers’?  From where should I have meat to give to all this people … I am not able to bear all this people myself alone because it is too heavy for me.  And if you treat me this way, kill me, I pray you, out of hand-if I have found favor in your sight:  And let me not look upon my wretchedness.’ (Num 11:  4-6; 10-11; 12-15).

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the Netziv, comments on Moshe’s despairing response with remarkable psychological acuity:  “This was on account of the pain he felt in his heart …  He saw that he would die of a broken heart in just a few days.  Therefore he told God: ‘if you don’t kill me now, I shall experience the agony of the anticipated symptoms of my impending demise.  Spare me from this anguish [and take me now] while I am still healthy.’”  This observation accurately expresses the profound sense of hopelessness and unspeakable pain of one who is suffering from deep depression.

God responds to Moshe’s pain and despair, providing a practical solution: 

And the Lord spoke onto Moshe: ‘Gather onto me seventy men of the elders of Israel; whom you know to be the elders of the people, and their officers… and I will come down and speak with you [im’kha] there, and I will take of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them:  And they shall bear the burden of the people with you and you shall not bear it alone’…And the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke onto him [eilav] and took of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders; And it came to pass, that when the spirit rested upon them they prophesized, but they did so no more [ve’lo ya’safu]. (Num 11:16-17; 25).

The Netziv notices that the Torah employs two different dative forms—with and to-- in describing God’s communication with Moshe—“I shall speak with you [imakh]” (verse 17) and “He spoke to him [eilav]” (verse 25).  He points out that God communicated with Moshe in two distinct ways.  The first [imakh] was dialogical.  There were two participants in the dialogue--God and Moshe.  This is the basis of the Oral Torah, in which there is a human partner.  The second form of communication was non-dialogical.  God was active.  Moshe was merely a channel through which God transmitted His Torah.  This second form of communication [eilav] connotes direct prophecy, the basis of the Written Torah.  In the context of the report of God’s placing Moshe’s spirit upon the seventy elders (Verse 25), this meant that they prophesized exactly what Moshe prophesized.  They transmitted the pristine divine message without any personal input.  Unlike subsequent Biblical prophets, whose prophecy was shaped by their own personalities and spiritual energies, the seventy elders were the prophetic clones of Moshe.

The Netziv supports this thesis in his interpretation of the phrase ve-lo yasafu:  “The meaning of ve-lo yasafu was explained in the Sifrei, Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 17a) and Onkelos’ [Aramaic translation] as: ‘And they did not cease from prophesying’. But the plain sense of the text appears to relate to the general rule that no two prophets articulated their prophetic message in exactly the same style (Sanhedrin 89a).  Therefore, if two prophets prophesy the same thing, they each necessarily add something to what the other says.   The Torah informs us [by saying lo ya’safu] that these elders prophesized exactly what Moshe would have said in the name of God, but they did not add [yasafu] anything at all. This was because their prophecy derived exclusively from the spirit of Moshe that devolved upon them”.

The Netziv’s astute grasp of the nuances of the text demonstrates how God’s solution for easing Moshe’s unbearable burden was to create prophetic clones.  By distributing the spirit of Moshe among the newly minted prophets, each was recast exactly in his image, thinking exactly what he thought, saying exactly what he would say, and thus making them into his perfect agents. 

But the solution seemed flawed.  The miracle appeared to be incomplete: 

And there remained two men in the camp.  The name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested upon them:  And they were of them that were recorded but had not gone to the Tent. And they prophesized in the camp. (Num. 11:27)

According to the Netziv, because they had not initially come into the presence of Moshe when his spirit devolved on the assembled elders, they did not become his clones, but prophesized independently.  The sages surmise that their prophecy was not popular.  They foretold the death of Moshe and the succession of Yehoshua as the leader of the people.  Not surprisingly, Yehoshua, ever the faithful servant, ran to Moshe and declared:  “My master Moshe, shut them up,” (Num 11:28).  Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s concern about the effects of the independent thinking of Eldad and Medad was majestically noble: 

And Moshe said to him: ‘Are you jealous for me?  Would that all the lord’s people were prophets, that the lord should put his spirit upon them [directly].

This analysis of the text highlights the tension between uniformity and dissent.  Yehoshua feared the corrosive effects of independent thinking upon authority.  Although he was motivated by the loftiest of sentiments, the type of concern that he demonstrated has always characterized authoritarian political systems.  Dissent is repressed, politically and theologically incorrect opinions are muted and dissenters silenced or imprisoned.  This is true of totalitarian groupthink on both the left and right.  Sadly, not even Judaism is completely immune to this tendency.

But Moshe’s response to Yehoshua’s outrage at the potential erosion of his monopoly on inspiration is truly characteristic of the authentic Jewish tradition. Unity of commitment to the Halakhah has never demanded uniformity. Of the 523 chapters’ of the Mishnah, only five are without dissent.  The record of powerful dissenting voices (like Ra’avad and Rambam, Ramban and Ba’al ha-Me‘or, and down the centuries, to the recent responsa of such rabbinic giants as R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Eliezer Waldenberg) has enlivened the Jewish religious tradition.


Dissent is often uncomfortable, but groupthink is both dangerous and paralyzing.  The enduring message of our text is that, properly motivated, dissent is but healthy and holy.    

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Friday, June 3, 2011

PARASHAT NASO: 2011/5771 : CHANNELING BLESSINGS


RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT NASO:  2011/5771


CHANNELING  BLESSINGS

Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. Say unto them: ‘May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord cause His face to shine on you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his face unto you and give you peace.’  And they shall place My Name upon the children of Israel, and I shall bless them. (Num. 6:22-27)

These verses contain what is probably the best known and most frequently used blessing in the Western religious tradition.  But the sages noted an apparent redundancy in its introduction.  Having stated ‘Thus shall you bless the children of Israel’, what need was there for the subsequent statement:  Say unto them’?  Apparently, the phrase: ‘Thus shall you bless the children of Israel’ did not refer to the standardized, detailed formulation of the blessing that follows. 

The Talmud (B.T. Sotah 35a) understands the phrase as defining the way in which the priests were commanded to utter the blessing.

‘Thus shall you bless—in the holy tongue [bi-leshon ha-kodesh].’  With few exceptions, the lingua franca of traditional Jewish prayer is Hebrew.   The Hebrew prayer book is universal.  A Jew from Los Angeles feels at home praying in a synagogue in Moscow, Berlin or Paris.  Ignorance of the local language is no barrier to full participation in worship.  Nevertheless, because focused prayer is not possible without understanding what one is saying, one generally has the option of praying in one’s native tongue. This is why most prayer books outside of Israel (where Hebrew is the native tongue) are printed in Hebrew, with the vernacular on facing pages.  The priestly blessing is one of the exceptions to this rule.  It must be recited in the holy tongue.  This is the first requirement of authentic recitation of the blessing.

‘Thus shall you bless—while standing [be-amidah].’  We sit during most of the worship service, including one of its central passages, the Shema Yisra’el [Hear O Israel].  One of the exceptions is the priestly benediction.  Both the priests and the congregation are required to be upstanding during its recitation.  This is the second requirement for channeling God’s blessing.

‘Thus shall you bless—with [outstretched, open and] raised hands [be-nesi’at kapayim].’  The usual posture for prayer is feet together and hands resting on the heart, indicating our surrender of autonomous activity, which is symbolized by deactivating our arms and legs.   Blessing, on the contrary, requires the priest to reach out actively to the community.  This is the third characteristic of the priestly benediction.

Thus shall you bless--face to face [panim el-panim].’ The customary worship mode is with the entire congregation facing the Holy Ark, which is positioned in the direction of Jerusalem.  The cantor, too, faces the Ark, with his back to the congregation. One might assume, therefore, that the priests would also pronounce the benediction facing the Ark, since it symbolizes the divine Presence. The sages inform us that the conferring God’s blessing is different. Authentic blessing can only be face to face.  The essence of blessing is contact.    Effective blessing cannot be impersonal. This is the fourth imperative for channeling God’s blessings.

‘Thus shall you bless—in clearly enunciated tones [be-kol ram].’  The Amidah is most important part of the Jewish worship service.  The sages call this part of the liturgy The Prayer [per excellence].  It is characterized by the requirement that it be recited silently, unlike most other parts of the service that can be said aloud.  In contrast, the essence of blessing is the requirement that it be clearly and audibly enunciated.  God may know the secret thoughts of His creatures, but human beings are not mind readers.  In order for a blessing to be effective, the recipients must know what it is that is being said to them.  This is the fifth characteristic of authentic blessing.

The five requirements for the priestly blessing appear to be strictly formal.  They relate to the posture and verbal expression of the priests.  But the Talmudic requirements transcend mere formality and ritual.  On a profounder level they symbolize five preconditions for anybody who wishes to make himself or herself an authentic channel for divine blessing.

The first is that authentic blessing should be articulated in holiness [bi-leshon ha-kodesh].  Misconceptions about the nature of blessing abound. Many people mistakenly believe that the real blessings they bestow upon those they love are material.  They work hard to provide their loved ones with training for success, comfortable homes, fashionable clothes and the wherewithal for living up to the standards of their peers.  The sages establish an entirely different set of priorities.  Authentic blessing is the transmission of a sense of holiness rather than the illusions of prosperity and success. A sense of holiness endows us with the conviction that our lives are meaningful, and with the belief that only what really matters endures.  Wealth is transient.  Material bounty is easily squandered or lost.  Learning, love, devotion, reverence, respect and wonder at the miracles of God’s creation are enduring blessings, reflecting the sacred.  The gifts of holiness are unconditional.  They are the fundamental condition of true blessing. 

The second precondition for blessing is uprightness [be-amidah].  This relates to moral rather than to physical posture.  Personal integrity and an uncompromising ethical existence characterize the individual whose blessings are always experienced as authentic.  No one who benefits from the gift of ill-gotten gains can truly be blessed.  Uprightness and blessing are synonymous.

The requirement of outstretched arms [be-nesi’at kapayim] conveys the message that one cannot be a passive vessel for the Divine blessing.  The person who blesses must be active in reaching out to others, lending a hand to those who need support and offering assistance to those in need.  Verbal expression is empty unless it is accompanied by genuine gestures of concern.

The face-to-face [panim el panim] requirement adds a significant dimension to that of the uplifted outstretched arms.  Acts of benevolence can be performed anonymously.  In some instances this may be their most noble expression.  But real blessing is interpersonal.  It represents the relationship and direct encounter between an “I” and a “thou”.  It honors the uniqueness of the beneficiary of the blessing.  The Hebrew word panim has antithetical meanings.  It connotes both inwardness and outwardness.  This is the meaning of the rabbinic dictum: “As peoples’ faces [i.e. outwardness] are different, so too are their innermost thoughts [i.e. inwardness]”.  Panim as inwardness refers to the ineffable otherness of every individual.  The person who is a real source of blessing recognizes the uniqueness of the person s/he is blessing.  Facing the other with reverence and awe of his or her essential specialness is what makes authentic blessing possible.

Finally, the requirement that the priestly blessing be articulated in clear tones [be-kol ram] conveys an important truth.  According to the sages, humankind is defined by speech.  The Torah attributes the creation of the first human being to infusion with divine breath. According to the Zohar, this endowed Adam with the uniquely human spirit of life, characterized by his becoming a ru’ach memalela- a spirit capable of speech.  Effective communication is uniquely human.  It promotes creativity, conflict resolution and communion.  The secret of authentic relationship is empathic communication.  The source of misunderstanding, pain and anger is poor communication or no communication.  Those who have to guess at what the other is thinking are likely to make mistaken assumptions.   Gifted with speech, we are not expected to read minds.  True blessing is clearly a function of articulated communication. 

To be sure, God alone is the source of blessing.  The priests are merely channels for the Divine:  And they shall place My
 Name upon the children of Israel. And I shall bless them.’  Channeling God’s blessings requires holiness, uprightness, generous outreach, open encounter and clear communication.  Abraham was instructed: ‘Be thou a blessing’.(Gen. 12:2)  Our text provides his descendants with guidelines for fulfilling this sublime mandate.