Lately, I’ve been filled with gratitude… I am especially grateful this week that Rabbi Miri Gold is being recognized as the first non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel, meaning the Reform and Conservative movements have finally made inroads into government acknowledgement there. While it’s not perfect, and it could be overturned, it looks like she and a few other rabbis who live outside the big cities will be paid by the government to serve their communities as rabbis, almost just like their Orthodox brethren. Their marriages and conversions still won’t be recognized, and apparently a different office of government will be funding their salaries, but it is a huge first step. I am grateful to Anat Hoffman and the Israel Religious Action Center — and all the people on this side of the Atlantic who put pressure on the Israeli government. It’s a shehekyanu moment if ever there was one…
I am also grateful that the Appeals Court knocked down the Defense of Marriage Act…as it winds its way to the Supreme Court.
And this week, I received an invitation to a Northern California women rabbis retreat – celebrating 40 years of women on the bima — I am grateful that women have been on the bima most of my life, and that it has been possible for me to become a rabbi – and I’m grateful that it is been almost exactly a year since I was ordained…
I’m grateful for the community we live in — where people help each other out without it being a big deal.
I’m grateful that it’s warm and the wild flowers are coming up.
What about you?
Do you know the Jewish tradition of saying 100 blessings a day? R. Meir speaks of it in the Talmud. While on weekdays, the three prayer services would fill the bill, another way of looking at it is — how many times each day can we notice the gifts we have received today?
The fact that we woke up at all. That we could climb out of bed, get dressed, face the day… that we saw the Lake shimmering with the sunlight dancing on it, and the goslings swimming in the pond down the road… That the baby took her first steps, or the grandchild graduated, or the wedding that is coming is coming together. That Rabbi Miri Gold was recognized by the government… so many blessings, if we just open our eyes.
Last year, part of my internship was a clinical pastoral education training. I trained in a peer group with Presbyterian and United Church of Christ ministers and ministers to be. When we prayed together, we found the one set prayer we had in common is the Priestly Blessing, found in the midst of this week’s torah portion – Naso… the second portion in Bemidbar, or Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. I love this blessing… It’s a powerful, succinct three verses. I began to wonder what gives it such power, so I turned to the medieval commentators to see what they had to say.
Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, had a lot to say. In general, he believed that grammar opened a door to deeper meaning in the text. So, within the instructions to Aaron that precede the blessing, he found that the particular grammatical construction to say these words to us, the children of Israel, meant that the blessing must not be said in haste or distraction, but with concentration and a full heart. Once you decide to offer the blessing, you better mean it. A good lesson for anyone.
Let’s look at the first verse… According to Rashi this pasuk (verse) – may the Holy One bless you and keep you, is about having enough. Often when God blessed people in the Bible, they received material well-being. Yish’m’recha is a form of the same word as v’shamru–– the and we shall keep/guard Shabbat… In this case, it is about keeping us safe from theft or robbery or violence. The metaphorical interpretation can be about keeping our faculties, or guarding our relationships, or even our health … Keeping our bodies and property secure.
The second verse… may the Holy One shine the divine countenance on you and be gracious to you. Nachmanides, the 13th century commentator, noted the “singular beauty” of the idea of the light of the divine presence shining on the recipient… to feel the power, the heat, the mystery internally, within our souls. The image I see is when sunlight filters through dense clouds, coming from the heavens. I have always envisioned God’s presence at those moments: a physical manifestation of the metaphor of God’s panim, God’s punem in Yiddish, God’s face. There is also the moment when I feel secure inside, knowing that everything is going to be all right in the end, when I am flooded with a sense of well-being: that too is feeling the light of the holy countenance.
While the first verse speaks to our material needs, this one speaks to our spiritual needs. We seek divine light and grace – another way of saying happiness and favor — which Rashi believes (and I tend to agree with him) we can best achieve through living a life dedicated to truth, beauty, justice and kindness… This verse introduces the importance of balance between material and spiritual well-being. Let’s not sacrifice one for the other.
And the final verse –May God lift up God’s countenance to you and grant you peace… Rashi tells us that the first phrase is about wanting God not to be angry with us – because when God is angry – whenever most of us are angry – we look down…our noses, so to speak… We are calling on the Holy One to accept our failings, our imperfections, with understanding. To recognize that even when we make mistakes or hurt others, we are still made b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image… And just as we pray to temper divine anger with mercy, so do we sometimes need such balance in our own emotions.
The last phrase – v’yesemlecha shalom… May the Holy One grant you shalom: it’s a call for peace or wholeness. Marcia Falk, the modern liturgist, notes that “the desire for peace is as acute as any human desire – and as urgent today as it has ever been,” but more than any other single virtue or gift, it is one that most depends on our own actions. The Rabbis describe shalom in the verse as the “vessel containing and preserving all blessings” for surely no peace is possible without people working together to make a better world, and that is hard to achieve when people do not feel whole.
The priestly blessing teaches us a great deal about blessing in general:
- don’t say it unless you mean it with a full heart;
- make sure your blessings are a balance of your material and your spiritual well-being;
- recognize that to be a source of blessing, you need to control your emotions and even give people the benefit of the doubt.
I pray that this week, you all find blessing and grace, peace and wholeness.
I feel so blessed lately that the superstitious side of me I hesitant to mention it. My community has been incredibly supportive of my dream. The dream is becoming reality right before my eyes. Life is so full of blessings I am easily saying “Baruch Hashem” 100 times a day. Thank you, Rabbi, for deeper insight into the Priestly Benediction.
Marian Blanton says
Examination of the priestly benediction reminds us how often we fail to hear subtle meanings of prayers repeated so often by rote at worship services. Far better is to acknowledge, individually, the blessings of life on a day to day basis, especially good counsel for someone as old as I. You can imagine how I felt receiving this week’s issue of TIME, yesterday. The cover proclaims in red, “How to Die.” Your antidote should be entitled, “How to Live.”