This past spring, part of my internship has been 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 torah portion, Naso.
During my ordination weekend in LA at the end of May, I repeatedly received the blessing myself. It’s a powerful, succinct three verses, and fifteen words. I began to wonder what gives it such power, so I went 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 bestowed 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: Y’varechecha Adonai v’yishm’recha. 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 Shomrei – as in Shomrei Torah – the guardians or keepers of the Torah. 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. As I heard it last week, it spoke to my prayer that I will be able to use my education, skills and passion in a way that both serves the Jewish people and contributes to my family’s material well-being.
The second verse: Y’air Adonai panav eylecha v’chunecha — 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 the one 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 face.
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: Yisa Adonai panav eylecha v’y’semlicha shalom –– 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. We know this because when God is angry—whenever most of us are angry—we look down…our noses, so to speak. Therefore, 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 is 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.
May you be blessed as Shabbat approaches.