The Priestly Benediction and Us

May 25th: Naso
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Nestled in our Torah portion this week is the ancient Priestly Benediction:
“May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord look upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord smile upon you and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6.24-26)
It is one of the most well-known passages from the Torah, and it has an active place in our services. In the traditional service, it is placed between the sixth and seventh blessings in the Sabbath Amidah—after Modim Anachnu Lach (We Acknowledge You) and before Sim Shalom (Grant Us Peace). Since peace is a theme of both the Priestly Benediction and the seventh blessing, the benediction could be seen as an introduction to Sim Shalom. But, since this is something the ancient priests actually said to the worshippers, we could also see the pairing as a kind of call and response. The priests ask God’s blessing upon the people, and then the people pray our prayer, adding our hopes for God’s blessings.

In traditional synagogues, the moment is enhanced by a ceremony called duchenen, where the kohanim are called to the front of the synagogue. They step out of their shoes, put their tallesim (tallitot) over their heads, faces and hands, and make the priestly sign (a shin). Then, the service leader intones each word of the Numbers 6 passage, and the priests chant it word by word. In most traditional synagogues, this ritual is done on Sabbaths and Holy Days, but the Jerusalem custom is to do it every day.

In the Reform Movement, the maintenance of the priestly line—with its various restrictions and honors—has been discontinued, so many rabbis ask the blessing themselves. Many even make the priestly sign with their hands, lifting them high in a gesture of blessing upon the congregation, whether they are kohanim or not. I remember these moments of blessing from my childhood. Even though we were already in the presence of God, the rabbi lifting his hands and intoning the blessing increased the spiritual intensity in the Temple and made us feel even more filled with holiness.

When I grew up and learned to lead services, taking on this particular role proved to be quite daunting for me. My ancestors were not kohanim, and so it seemed rather audacious to lift my hands and speak the blessing. But, we no longer have the priestly cult, and we do not do duchenen, and our Sages taught that our post-priestly Judaism can get us just as close to God as the Judaism we practiced in the days of the Temple. In my mind, our people today deserve to have this spiritual moment. Moreover, the person who asks the blessing is not doing the blessing him/herself, but rather serving as a vessel for God’s blessings. As the Rabbis in the Talmud make clear, this was true even for the ancient kohanim: the priests did not bless the people; they merely asked God to bless the people. And so, I learned to lift my arms and try to draw God’s energy into the room.

Our power exists in our yearning to reach out for God, and, as the prophet assures us, God will return this energy to us. “They that wait for the Lord shall exchange their strength.” (Isaiah 40.31)

The larger lesson is about more than my decision. The larger lesson is about all of us taking on the role of priesthood—an aspiration set before us by Rabbinic Judaism’s reading of the Torah. Judaism offers both a ritual and a moral priesthood to anyone who wants to be a vessel of God. Yes, in the Bible, the priests were the ones who officiated at the rituals, but God’s goal was for the entire people to attain a kind of priesthood. Remember God’s charge to us just before we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6)

And, if we jump forward some 3000 years, from Mount Sinai to our modern world, we can see this aspiration of priesthood in universal terms. Not only Jews, but all people are called by the Eternal to bring godliness into the world. Though our traditional texts speak in terms of our special relationship with God and our special role in the world, the Kabbalah and our modern universalistic insights expand the call to everyone. Humans were created as entry-ways for God into the world, providing points of Divine access when we open ourselves to the influence of heaven. We do this ritually when we work to ascertain our relationship with the Infinite and express it in ritual language. We do this ethically when we determine what is righteous and endeavor to make good behavior the way of the world. In other words, we can become the blessings for which we pray.

We can connect with God by being holy vessels. We can bring God into the world and connect the shefa, the flow of blessing. When God turns toward us, as the Priestly Benediction prays, we have the opportunity to meet God’s gaze with our own and to join in the work of holiness.