In the middle of Parashat Nasso, we come upon some of the most well-known and beloved lines in the entire Torah. These words are so popular that they can be found on the oldest known writing of verses from the Torah, dating back to the first Temple Era.
In 1979, at an archaeological dig in the Hinom Valley in Jerusalem, two small silver amulets were found by a thirteen year old boy. They were dated to the sixth or seventh century, BCE, earlier than any existing manuscript of the Torah. Those amulets contained the words of the Priestly Blessing.
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר יְ-הֹוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א יְ-הֹוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
For thousands of years, these words have been used to invoke God’s blessings. In the Torah, Aaron and his sons are instructed to use these words to channel God’s blessings on to the people. We include them in the Amidah, reciting them out loud whenever there is a repetition. We follow the Ashkenazi tradition at Sinai of duchenning on Yom Tov. The priests come up to the bimah to bless the congregation during the Musaf service. Parents bless their children on Friday nights using these words, and the bride and groom receive this blessing under the chuppah.
Our tradition refers to it as the brachah hameshuleshet – The Three Part Blessing. In other words, it is a single blessing comprised of three parts. Its very structure expresses balance and completeness. It has three lines, each of which has two parts. The three lines are comprised of three, five, and seven words which are formed by fifteen, twenty, and twenty five letters, respectively. The opening phrase of the first line and the closing phrase of the last line each have seven syllables. Jacob Milgrom describes it as “a rising crescendo.” Scribes write the Priestly Blessing with unusual spacing, another indication of its specialness.
But what does this Threefold Blessing mean? Throwing up his hands, one commentator (Kli Yakar) declares: “Numerous ideas have emerged to explain the meaning of the blessings – each person explaining them according to his intellect.” I would like to look this morning at one particular interpretation offered by the nineteenth century author of the Torah commentary HaEmek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netziv. Based upon his interpretation, we will see that the Threefold Blessing is in fact a single blessing, each phrase building upon its predecessor in a kind of story.
Moses is told to instruct the High Priest Aaron and his sons: “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. Say to them…” Note that the blessing is delivered collectively, not to individuals. Consider how we recite the priestly blessing on holidays when we duchen. The priests channel God’s blessing to the entire congregation. That seems to be how Second Temple Priests would use it. If you were visiting the Temple, you could grab a priest wandering by and ask him for a blessing. He would then assemble a group and use these words.
But then, when we get to the words of the blessing itself, the grammar changes. Yevarekhekha. “May the Lord bless you” – singular. A priest, addressing a group, speaks to them in the second person singular.
The Netziv comments that this blessing is directed to each individual “whatever it is appropriate for that person to be blessed with.” He gives a couple of examples. For someone who is dedicated to Torah study, the blessing is for increased learning. For one engaged in business, the blessing is for financial success. And so on, a blessing of abundance for whatever is most valued by each person in the group being blessed. The second part of the first line is v’yishmerakha – “and protect you.” The Netziv points out that an abundance of blessing brings with it certain risks. V’yishmerekha asks that the blessing one receives does not become a stumbling block. A Torah scholar needs to be protected from pride. A wealthy person needs protection so that affluence does not lead to evil. And so on. A blessing, unchecked has the capacity to cause suffering. The first line, therefore, is concerned with you, the individual recipient of God’s blessing. May you have abundance in whatever you most need, and may that abundance not lead to suffering.
We continue with the second line. Ya’er Adonai panav elekha. “May the Lord cause God’s light to shine upon you.” The story of blessing progresses. Light figuratively shines from the recipient of blessing. Other people, observing such success, recognize that it comes from God. It is not a matter of mere luck. The end of the second line is vichuneka – “And be gracious to you.” The story continues. When other people see that God has blessed you, they will undoubtedly come to you to ask for you to pray for God’s blessing on their behalf. Vichuneka refers to God’s grace in answering the prayers of the petitioner on behalf of others. If the first line is focused on the recipient of blessing, the second line is about extending that blessing to other people. We are asked to share our blessings. To use the gifts we have received in a way that improves the world around us.
Yisa Adonai panav elekha – “May God lift up God’s face to you.” Does God have a face? What is a face? HaEmek Davar equates a face with a midot, personal qualities. Joy and anger are reflected on a person’s face. And so, this blessing, calling for God’s face to be lifted to you, is asking for God to direct Divine attributes such as kindness, mercy, and forgiveness, towards the recipient of blessing. V’yasem l’kha shalom – “And may God place upon you peace.” This comes at the end, after all the other blessings. Shalom is the vessel that strengthens all other blessings, says the Netziv. “Without peace, there can be no enjoyment of any blessing.” This completes the story. A person receives blessing, the particular success that is unique to that person’s talents and interests. The sucess does not become a curse. In fact, that success can be translated to spreading blessing and success to other people as well. The final step is God’s Presence, expressed through the metaphor of God lifting up God’s face to you.
The ending, shalom, is the coda. No blessing can be fully enjoyed unless there is peace. Or more accurately, “wholeness.” We might understand this spiritually as the kind of equanimity and peace experienced by a person who is at one with God.
Speaking more generally, when we have opporunities to develop and maximize our talents, and we use them in ways that leave the world around us better, that is the recipe for a life well lived. Such a person experiences God’s presence and knows shleimut, wholeness, in their life. Perhaps you know someone like that, or maybe you are someone like that. As a parent, when I bless my children on Friday night, this is the blessing for them that I hold in my heart.
This blessing contains a theology for what makes for a meaningful life. It is not enough to selfishly enjoy my own blessings. I have to work to make it possible for others to experience blessings as well. But it also contains a recognition that managing one’s blessings can be difficult.
Shalom can refer to an individual, spiritual feeling of wholeness, but we might also see shalom in more tangible terms. Peace and stability in the world around me. Without that kind of shalom, it is impossible to fully experience blessing.
The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began yesterday (5/21/21). To be clear, it is a ceasefire, not peace. We are far from peace. As I said last week, we are very distant from Israel. I am reluctant to dictate what I think Israel should or should not be doing.
But when I look at recent events, it seems to me that Israel is still struggling with how to live with the blessing of Jewish power. Israel has achieved so much in such a short time. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed out this week, every war Israel has fought since 1973 has been an assymetrical war. It has fought against enemies with less technology, less hardware, and less military advantage. Israel’s existence has not been at stake for nearly fifty years. Israel is not fighting for its survival, and this is a tremendous blessing.
This blessing creates other kinds of challenges. Israel wrestles with how to conduct itself morally in a world that is extremely complicated and morally ambiguous. World opinion is fickle, influenced by millenia of anti-semitism and by knee-jerk inclinations to automatically take the side of those with less power. Israel still struggles to deal with opponents, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, that deny its right to exist, that – intentionally and strategically – put Israel in morally impossible situations by launching rockets from civilian areas to civilian areas. Jews are being attacked in Europe, in Canada, and here in America simply for being Jewish.
And – Palestinians in the West Bank continue to live under Israeli military occupation and under blockade by Israel and Egypt in the Gaza Strip. Regardless of where fault might lie, living conditions for Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are terrible and should evoke our compassion. Our hearts should break for the devastation that they are experiencing.
And – especially in recent years, Israel has behaved with a certain degree of triumphalism, passively allowing or even actively encouraging the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It has allowed discrimination against Arab citizens in Israel to persist. Yes, they are citizens and they can vote, but that is not all there is to living in a democracy.
There are no simple solutions to any of these problems.
The Priestly Blessing suggests that the appropriate response to our own blessings is to share it with others. It does not seem to me that we have honestly done this with the Palestinians. I am not naive. Israel faces very real and dangerous obstacles, including those who seek its destruction. Until we all fully recognize that everyone should be entitled to pursue lives of dignity, freedom, prosperity, and democracy, including Palestinians, true blessing will remain elusive.
Remember the story of the threefold blessing. It starts with abundance, and asks that our experience of abundance not lead to suffering. Then, it asks that our abundance be something that we can share, so that others can experience their own blessings as well. Only then does God raise God’s face to us. Only then do we experience true Shalom. A Shalom that serves as a vessel for all other blessing.
May that blessing come speedily in our days.