Cantor & Student Rabbi Gershon Silins, 2 June 2017“When I was living in Israel in 1986-87, archeologists published findings about a silver scroll inscribed with what appeared to be a biblical text. It had been found in Jerusalem, in an escarpment overlooking the Hinnom valley, in 1979, and the science of that time suggested that it was very old. Research indicated that it was the earliest occurrence of a Biblical text in an extra-Biblical document, significantly predating the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and also the oldest extra-Biblical reference to YHWH, the God of Israel. It was a dramatic archeological discovery, and it brought the biblical text to life for me, because it had been found in Jerusalem, and because of the text that was inscribed on it: part of the text of the Priestly Benediction, which occurs in our portion this week. Even people who wouldn’t recognise very much of the Hebrew Bible are familiar with this text. It is the one which begins, “May God bless you and keep you…” and it is heard at weddings and other personal and communal events, as well as in the liturgy. There was some controversy about the dating of the scroll, but recent technological advances have confirmed its origins to the period before the destruction of the first Temple, which took place in 586 BCE, making this scroll at least two and half millennia old.
Here is the text (adapted from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary):
Adonai spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
Adonai bless you and protect you!
Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you!
Adonai bestow favour upon you and grant you peace!
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
The blessing itself is divided into three parts, in increasing length, each containing two verbs with the name God in the middle. Our sages interpreted each of them in increasing significance, referring first to material blessings, and then to the spiritual blessings we receive when we engage in the study of Torah, and finally crowning all these with the blessing of peace.
This text is powerful and evocative. I know that when I chant it for a wedding couple, I am myself moved by it. And yet, the text, brief as it is, is theologically problematic. Why should God command that the priests are to bless the people, when it is God who blesses? What does the priestly involvement add to God’s blessing? If it is God who blesses, why do we need the priests at all? Some interpreters have suggested that the priests bless the people, and God blesses the priests, but this is not the prevailing opinion. The priests have a role, but it is God who does the blessing. As Nehama Leibowitz points out, the transaction here seems to be similar to the passage from Ezekiel which says, “and you will make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit;” a few verses later we read, “a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit.” People and God are both partners in achieving this renewal. Similarly, in the priestly blessing, God commands the priests to bless the people, and that blessing is that God will bless them; it is as if the priests prepare the people to receive God’s blessing. Although the ancient silver scroll was most likely an amulet, our sages did not treat it as a magical formula but rather as a symbol of the partnership of God and people, giving us an active role in that which has the power to bless us, if we let it.
And this is perhaps the central feature of giving or receiving a blessing — both the giver and receiver of the blessing must somehow be committed to it and receptive to it. As Woody Allen is said to have observed, 90% of life is showing up. We have to be there for it to work, not just physically present, but that’s a good place to start.
As our movement approaches its Kabbalat Shabbat Britannia on 9th June, the Day of Liberal Jewish Music on the 10th, and the Day of Celebration on the 11th, these words seem particularly apt. The priestly benediction reminds us that gathering to meet, to study and to pray is itself a blessing.
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