This week’s parshah is Naso, which contains one of my favorite prayers in all of Judaism, the Priestly Blessing. It’s a part of the Torah that, for me, bridges the relationship between humans and HaShem. More on that in a minute.
Here’s a summary of the parshah: There’s a head count of the Israelites. Roughly 8,600 Levite men are identified to transport the Tabernacle and ritual objects. HaShem tells Moses about practices to follow when a jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity. Feminists forewarned: the process requires the accused to swallow a bitter liquid to prove her innocence. The laws of the Nazirites are outlined: swearing off wine, letting hair grow, and avoiding the dead. Aaron and the kohanim are told how to bless the people. The leaders of each tribe bring identical offerings to inaugurate the altar.
I want to focus on the Priestly Blessing, known as the Birkat HaKohanim (the blessing of the priests) and also the Birkat HaShalom (the blessing for peace). I think this prayer is at the core of our relationship with HaShem.
Much of Torah is about what HaShem wants from us. We’re often told what to do and how do it: Commandments. Mitzvot. Kashrut. Sacrifices. Practices for everything from infidelity to the treatment of relatives, neighbors, slaves, priests, swindlers, the afflicted, and other nations.
For a literalist, it’s unambiguous, punctuated with frequent reminders about the allegiance we owe HaShem for liberating us from mitzrayim. Also by vivid threats about what will happen if we don’t do as we’re told. Even for the more interpretive, it sets a moral standard that suggests living with consistent self-scrutiny.
All this tells us what the God of the Torah wants from us. I believe that the Priestly Blessing shows us what we want from HaShem.
In ancient times the Priestly Blessing was said by the kohanim as part of the morning service, at Musaf, and at Ne’ilah. In the Diaspora it is usually said at the pilgrimage festivals and the High Holy Days. Here at TBI, Rabbi Yitz includes it in his blessings for those completing a B’nai Mitzvah. And we say it to one another during the Musaf service on Yom Kippur.
As I was preparing this dvar I thought about where I’ve encountered the Priestly Blessing, which I confess to missing as a regular part of weekly services, though I understand there’re reasons to keep it for special times.
There was a flash of pop culture, to the single-handed Vulcan salute that Spock gives on Star Trek when he says, “live long and prosper.” Hooray for Jews in Hollywood, though the Kohanim use both hands. But that’s form. The import comes from content.
I grew up in a family of German immigrants, refuges from the Nazis. I spent my first eight years in a very conservative synagogue. Old Germans, black coats and hats, and lots of handshaking and muttering. Virtually the whole service in Hebrew and German. Then we moved and joined a Reform congregation. A rabbi more like Boris: friendly and accessible. Suddenly I understood lots more of what was going on. My favorite part was the end, when the rabbi would lift his arms and give the Priestly Blessing. He’d do it slowly, one line at a time, first in Hebrew and then in English. And even though I might have been distracted, or even nodding off, during any other part of the service, for those few moments I was completely present and attentive. I listened with every fiber of my being.
The three lines, and the message contained in them are profound, powerful, and all encompassing. The prayer creates a womb of love and protection for each and all of us. If you surrender to it, you’re filled with the feeling that nothing can harm you and that you are an extension of holy light.
Here’s what I remember from my childhood:
Yivorekhekhaw Adonai v’yishm’rekhaw….May God bless you and keep you –
Yo’ayr Adonai pawnawv aylekhaw vikhoonekhaw…May the light of God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you –
Yisaw Adonai pawnav aylekhaw v’yasaym l’khaw shalom..May God’s face be lifted unto you and may all your paths be paths of peace –
The Priestly Blessing is a conduit for Hashem’s light. It’s about being illuminated from without, and of taking that holy light into your beingness, so you are also illuminated from within. Of having your holy spark rekindled by HaShem. And of bringing that spark into every aspect of how you breathe and live.
That’s a whole lot of prayer rolled into three lines. And a direct key to the heart of why we pray.
What do we want from HaShem? We want to be and feel loved. We want a divinity that will help us make and enjoy a life of protection and peace.
Many names for HaShem focus on God as a warrior, often wrathful and filled with vengeance. God’s anger is sometimes directed Israel’s enemies, and sometimes at us for our inconsistent obedience.
There’s a reason we, and so many other religions, use this kind of imagery. The world’s not at peace, or even a very peaceful place. We live in the times between Gan Eden and the Messianic Age. Every day we face a world that, at its worst, validates the philosopher Thomas Hobbes observation that “life is nasty, brutish, and short.” Most of us have it much better than that. But even democratic capitalism creates societies based in competition. Living with scarcity and inequity—perceived and real–can’t help but infect and challenge us.
By contrast, Judaism is grounded in caring for others, for the least among us. In acts of loving kindness and the idea of tzedakah, of giving and sharing. Of bringing on the world to come through tikkun olam, healing the ills of this one. I think the Priestly Blessing is in part HaShem’s tzedakah to us. Not in material things but in that most precious of all non-market goods, in the hope, spirit, and blessing of shalom, of peace.
Implicitly, it asks us to work for peace so we and everyone can enjoy it. Peace is the goal of our lives, and the wish we most often share with one another. Each week when we say Shabbat Shalom we are extending the prayer for holy peace to one another.
Shalom is one anchor of the prayer. The other is the word “gracious,” a word firmly rooted in my memory as part of the blessing, though it is not literal translation.
Graciousness is an expansive, inviting quality. It’s Abraham rushing to greet the angel messengers. So gracious a host that he interrupts a conversation with HaShem to welcome them, even before he knows why they’ve come. Would we were all so gracious to the strangers among us.
Graciousness is founded in contentment and joy, but also in service. It comes both from a place where your cup runneth over, and from an ability to share even when it does not. Graciousness is untroubled by fears of either past or future. It speaks to trusting that goodness will help create shalom.
Most of us don’t live in that state often enough. Our prayers are too often about wanting desires fulfilled. An ailment healed or maybe help at work. A shiny red bike or its adult variations. We need to elevate our wishes for a gracious world for everyone.
A few months ago, I was yearning for what the kabbalists call devekut, a profound sense of connection to HaShem. It’s a mystic’s version of ecstasy. But wishing isn’t having. So I thought about how often we–or at least I — are filled with drama and desire, both mundane and esoteric. These stories keep us so busy that it’s sometimes hard to feel HaShem’s light coming in.
It’s like the old riddle about putting stones into a jar. The trick is to put the big ones in first, then fill the little ones around them. Because if you cram the jar of your life with pebbles first, there’s not going to be room for the more important things.
When our personal stories take up all our time and attention it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, what we’re here to do not only for ourselves but for others. If we’re reminded regularly to be to truly let in HaShem’s light, something changes.
Having that light illuminate us can make us softer and more transparent, and aim us more at what really matters. You feel the shift on a soul level and see it shine through in how you live.
We need to undergo that transformation. Why? Because even when our lives are good–let alone when we’re in trouble or crisis— as individuals and as a people we embody that longing for peace. It’s a historic and genetic legacy, as well as a personal need.
We need HaShem to have a safe place for the most tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves. The ones we think no one ever sees, or that no one would love if they did. The ones we most fear might be wounded or misunderstood. The Priestly Blessing gives us the knowing that we will be loved and blessed regardless. It gives us hope for both inner and outer peace.
We ask for peace regularly in our prayers. In the Hashkivenu, we ask HaShem to spread a canopy of peace over us and our community. To guard our going forth each day. To enfold us in wings of protection. In Adon Olam we say beyado afkid rukhi, Into your hand I place my spirit. In some traditions the Priestly Blessing is said each night upon retiring We ask for HaShem’s protection, in the dark and back into the light. We trust and hope we will wake up each morning to a new day of blessing.
Those prayers are the how we connect to HaShem. By allowing HaShem’s divine and gracious light into every fiber of our being. So we can go forth and shine that light back into the world. To make the world to come.
So please close your eyes and listen again to the Priestly Blessing. Take it in from your forebrain to your toes. Then take the words with you, through Shabbat and into your week, to help make a world filled with shalom:
Yivorekhekhaw Adonai v’yishm’rekhaw …May HaShem bless you and keep you –
Yo’ayr Adonai pawnawv aylekhaw vikhoonekhaw…May the light of HaShem’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you –
Yisaw Adonai pawnav aylekhaw v’yasaym l’khaw shalom…May HaShem’s face be lifted towards you and may all your paths be paths of peace.