Friday, June 3, 2011



PARASHAT NASO:  2011/5771


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.            

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