Live Long and Prosper

May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I go to visit congregants who are ill or recovering, I usually give a blessing when I leave, in the form of a prayer for healing. The first part is the usual mi sheberach formula in Hebrew (‘May the One who blessed…’) and the second part is a list of the things we are hoping will happen. A blessing is more than the expression of a good wish for someone: it has an element of the transcendent in it

This week I had the good fortune to hear a scholar with an international reputation speak about issues related to this week’s Torah portion. Dr. Ruth Calderon is a Member of the Israel Knesset who was invited by the Jewish National Fund to speak about her book, A Bride for One Night.

The book is quite wonderful, and does not lack for content directly relevant to our portion this week. Since our portion this week features the priestly blessing, however, I thought that I would share with you a selection from her work regarding the High Priest and a blessing.

In her work, Dr. Calderon draws from the Talmudic text, using a compact and enigmatic story from the Talmud as the basis of her extended retelling. In this case, she is relating the story of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, who had at one time, prior to the destruction of the Temple, served as the High Priest. In the story, Rabbi Yishmael tells of an encounter with God during Yom Kippur, when God was made manifest to him as another human being. Come and hear; this is his story.

“Yishmael senses a presence. Someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest nor even like a regular human being.

“From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.

“‘Achatriel Yah Adonai Tzvaot,’ his lips murmur.

“Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes and is greeted by a stormy visage.

“‘Yishmael, my son, bless me.’ He is being addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. ‘ Yishmael’ – pronounced just as his mother would say it. ‘My son.’ This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between a father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?

“Yishmael does not understand what the One seated on the throne wants for him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest and becomes only himself. He listens. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.

“Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is showered in blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: ‘May it be Your will.’ The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.’ He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a hint of embarrassment.

“He continues: ‘And may You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’ The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael’s doubts are assuaged. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the fire pans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals, enters an outer chamber and offers a prayer, keeping it short. He does not want to worry the people outside, who will be concerned about the fate of the priest in that holiest of chambers and the holiest time of the year.

“Truly how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.[1]

An interesting aspect of this story is the shift from a ritual activity – the slaughter of animals – to the spoken word. According to this text, spoken blessings occurred even at the time of the Temple. And, as the story indicates, they were indeed welcomed by God. This could be a backward projection or a historical record; we do not know.

Nonetheless, the priestly blessing, a blessing that appears in the Torah, has long been a part of the liturgy of the synagogue, the institution that replaced the Temple cult. After the destruction of the Temple, the priests no longer sacrifice animals; they become, instead, the bearers of God’s blessings for the congregation.

In Reform congregations, the priestly blessing is often invoked in a sacred moment before the ark in the context of life cycle events. But it appears in a different form in more traditional contexts. Listen, for example, to the recollection of civil rights lawyer Rachel Farbiarz of its recitation in the sephardic synagogue of her youth: “At a specified time in the service,” she writes, “the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.”[2]

“The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape.”

The ‘v-shape’ she mentions is one that any fan of Star Trek will recognize: Leonard Nemoy, also Jewish, adapted this hand-sign for use in a Vulcan blessing, ‘live long and prosper.’ What looks like a v-shape, however, is actually a different letter entirely. The ‘v’ is created with the pointer finger and middle finger on one side and the ring finger and pinky finger on the other. However, if you include the thumb, the fingers form the three arms of the Hebrew letter shin, the letter that appears on all mezzuzot, those little boxes we hang on doorposts. The letter references one of the names of God. Like the mezzuzot, the priests become the vessels for conveying God’s omnipresent blessing.

Ms. Farbiarz continues: “the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.”[3]

Note a key difference between this blessing and the one relayed by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha: this one is not done face-to-face, in a direct encounter. As she explains: “I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers.” One is expected to look away and not gaze upon this source of holiness.

Ms. Farbiarz has an interesting explanation for the reason why the blessing is chanted in this manner: “I have always suspected,” she writes, “that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other. The tented shawls, the downcast gazes, shield the community from the inevitable psychological contortions that easily transform a blessing into an act that underscores the hierarchy between blesser and blessed.”[4]

Thus, in her view, this practice democratizes the distribution of blessing: “The kohanim cannot see those upon whom they confer God’s blessing and the congregation cannot identify the priests who have done so. Rather than simply given or received, the blessing is instead resident within a community of both givers and receivers.”[5] There is no intermediary here.

Taken together, these two stories point to the fundamental paradox of blessing: in one sense the giving of a blessing is very much an interpersonal event, a face-to-face encounter with the other.

Yet, at the same time, giving a blessing is a profoundly transcendent act, otherworldly in its content, metaphysical in its transmission, for it references the Holy One of blessing.

May you experience shabbat peace.

 

[1] Ruth Calderon, “Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me,” A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales translated by Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), pp. 141-2.

[2] Rachel Farbiarz, “Birkat Kohanim: Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?” in http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/naso_ajws3.shtml

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

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