December 17, 2021

The Priestly Blessing and the Mastery of Inner Space

By Simon Eder

We live in an age obsessed with innovation. Who would have thought barely 10 years ago that the biggest hotel company in the world – would have no hotels, that the biggest taxi company in the world would have no taxis, that one of the biggest restaurant companies in the world would have not restaurants, that you need no physical storage to house a lifetime supply of books, films or music. In so many ways the pandemic has propelled us further. Who would have thought just two years ago our virtual world would have transformed as it has done, that the need for business travel would have been virtually mitigated overnight, that you could sit at home in your pyjama bottoms in North West London and attend synagogue in New York.

We are conquering space as never before, and yet mastery of inner-space remains as elusive as ever. We have built as Noreena Hertz has argued ‘a lonely world’. We are digitally connected as never before but socially isolated. The virus has shone a light on a yet more challenging mental health pandemic. In our quest for what’s next? What’s new? We have lost sense of the eternal.

We are conquering space as never before, and yet mastery of inner-space remains as elusive as ever.

With the virus out of control once again and the emergence in the last few weeks of the Omicron variant, our world is certainly in need of blessings! Perhaps seeking a sense of the eternal through the blessing etched more deeply on Jewish consciousness than any other – the Priestly Blessing, would serve us well at this difficult time. These are of course the words with which we bless our children on a Friday night, they are said at weddings to the bride and groom, we say them at the beginning of the morning service and they are the words of the duchening recited by the Cohanim on festivals.

The final line in the sequence is somewhat puzzling ‘’so they will put my name on the Israelites and I will bless them’’(1). Archaeology provided an answer to this when in 1979 Gabriel Barkay discovered two tiny silver scrolls with different versions of this birkat hakohanim at the site of Ketef Hinnom (southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem), They were rolled up in a way that indicated that they had been worn some 2600 years ago as amulets, as a  kind of charm in the way that today we might wear a Magen David or Chai. The discovery, the oldest surviving fragments from biblical times, indicated therefore that long before even the evidence for the written Torah, this blessing was used as a form of protection for our ancestors, also similar to the Deuteronomic injunction for tefillin that we read in the Shema. The line ‘’put my name on the Israelites’’ as the finding shows was quite possibly understood literally. Written not in the Hebrew alphabet which dates to the Babylonian exile but in ancient semitic script, it is profoundly moving to think that these words were first uttered and written down so long ago!

We might seek the new in our daily pursuit of marginal gains, but we would do well too to look back to these words, this blessing which has accompanied our people’s journey these past 27 centuries and which we are in need of realising today as never before.

What do the blessings mean?

”May the Lord bless you and keep you”

Blessing in this context refers to material blessing, Rashi sees it for example as referring to one’s property increasing. Judaism has known an asceticism at various junctures but principally it has taken its lead from the book of Genesis where what God majestically called forth into being is good. ”On the 6th day God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”(2) So too God’s blessings are to be found in this world – indeed we are here to enjoy the pleasures of life. Deuteronomy strikes a warning and reminds us time and again of the paradox that it is when we have most to thank God for, we turn to God least. ‘’when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery . . . You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”(3) ‘’Keep you’’ therefore is a guarding against arrogance, a call to humility, a reminder of the ultimate source of our blessings. It is a reminder of the ever impending danger of turning the blessing into a curse. After the last few years, we are hopefully more sensitised to the natural world, appreciative of the material fruits of the world and maybe more aware of life’s fragility

“May the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”

The second line of the blessing refers, as the Sifrei, the halachic midrash on Bamidbar says to the light of wisdom and knowledge of Torah. It is though, along with the following line perhaps one of the most enigmatic in the entire Torah – do we not think of God as formless. Maimonides’ 3rd Principle of Faith emphasises God’s non-corporeality, do we not read in Exodus that ‘’you cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live’’(4) and yet here we read in this blessing for a direct encounter with the Divine. Indeed we are reminded of Moses’ own communion with God on Sinai and when he returns to the people we read: ‘’And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams’’(5). The blessing then is to be able to receive direct revelation which is an emulation of Moses no less! In Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs book,  Seeker of Unity where he discusses the works of Aaron of Starosselje, he talks of the Messianic Age as the time when God will be revealed even in the finite world, without any concealment whatsoever – here in our verse the blessing is for a glimpse of that time. As to what this might mean I can’t help thinking of Einstein’s line: ‘’imagination is more important that knowledge, knowledge is limited to all that we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all that there is to know and understand’’. The second line of the blessing is a request for ultimate inspiration!

To understand who we are as a people, our prayers provide us some deep psychological insight.

Just as the first line is tempered with that call to humility, so too in the second line, following the blessing for divine encounter, reference is made to the element of grace, chen! Perhaps more familiar as a tenet in Christian theology and of course forever memorialised in John Newton’s famous lyrics – ‘’Amazing Grace’’ it is central to Jewish thought too and one of the Divine attributes. It suggests a combination of gentleness, understanding and compassion. The word appears 31 times in Tanakh – mostly in human/Divine interaction but movingly it is also the word used when the estranged brothers – Jacob and Esau reconcile and Jacob requests of Esau to accept his gift ‘’If I have found favour in your sight – receive my gift’’(6). Reference to gracious then is the understanding that just as God should see the best in us – that we too should seek understanding and compassion with all – live the moral life, see the Divine within the Other.

“May the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

In a long analysis the 15th century Spanish Jewish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama explains that shalom (peace) does not mean merely the absence of war or strife. It means completeness, perfection, the harmonious working of a complex system, integrated diversity, a state in which everything is in its proper place and all is at one with the physical and ethical laws governing the universe. Peace in the world on this understanding should therefore begin with inner-peace. It is the thread which strings together all the other blessings. Just as many of our prayers – grace after meals, kaddish, the amidah ends with the prayer for peace so it is with the Priestly Blessing too. It remains our deepest yearning, it requires us in those beautiful words from Marianne Williamson to overcome ‘’our deepest fear that we are powerful beyond measure’’ that in letting our light shine we connect to the Divine and unconsciously give permission for others to do the same. That is the peace that we seek – within ourselves and from there – for the entire world.

Most of our prayers we read in the collective. Judaism is more often than not a lived expression of the Thou-we relationship but here we find with the Priestly blessing a supreme example of what Buber referred to as the I-Thou relationship. To understand who we are as a people, our prayers provide us some deep psychological insight – none more so than the Priestly Blessing whose words we have carried with us over the centuries. There is no seeking after power here, no desire expressed to flee from the world – it is a prayer for humble living – for enjoying the fruits of what the world has to offer, for protection, the right to live without fear and for realisation of our true potential and even ultimate union.

(1) Numbers 6:27
(2) Genesis 1:31 (3) Deuteronomy 8: 12-14
(4) Exodus 33:20 (5) Exodus 34:30 (6) Genesis 33:10

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.