Heavenly blessings: Sacred ritual is a call to action

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Naso (Numbers 4:21−7:89)

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons.  Tell them thus: you shall bless the Israelites.  Say to them: May Adonai bless you and keep you.  May Adonai cause Divine light to shine on you and be gracious to you.  May Adonai lift Divine countenance on you and give you peace.  So they shall put My Name on the Israelites and I will bless them. (Num. 6:22-27)

This passage from parashat Naso always reminds me of the evening I became a bar mitzvah.  My rabbi, Edgar Magnin, z”l invoked this ancient Priestly Blessing. As he placed his trembling, ninety year-old hands on my head, Rabbi Magnin recited these hallowed words.  My rabbi’s fingers were spread apart like Dr. Spock in Star Trek. [Actually, for those of you who don’t know, Leonard Nimoy got his inspiration from the Kohanim, the ancient Priests.] As Rabbi Magnin’s hands hovered over my head and then gently rested upon it, chills raced through my body.  I knew this was a holy moment. 

What I did not know was that someday I would stand again before the open ark–this time for my smikha (ordination) as a rabbi.  And once again, the officiating rabbi (my Rosh Yeshiva Shelly Zimmerman) would offer the Birkat Kohanim; and, the drama of his hands placed upon my head made my spirit soar to an inspired and sacred summit.

And now 20 years later, having served as a rabbi for a long and glorious time, each time I convey the Birkat Kohanim to my Jewish community, I myself feel newly blessed each time. What a precious opportunity to connect with others in such a special and time-honored way.  

The Priestly Blessing, which we also call Duchanan, is a very important ritual. Duchanan refers literally to the elevated platforms in the Temple where the Kohanim stood and blessed the people.  I love being able to do Duchanan in our own age.  I love how itlifts a moment of prayer and celebration. And, I love how people close their eyes and bow their heads as they receive the blessings–with a sense of humility, thanksgiving, and kavannah (spiritual intentionality).

Commenting on the significance of Duchanan, 15th-century Spanish Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama, in a work entitled Akeidat Yitzhak, invites the following theology: “The foundation of faith is that a person know that everything, the good things and bad, in general and in specific, flow from the Holy One. No one can say: “By my strength and by my power alone has this come to pass.”

According to Rabbi Ben Moses Arama, the Kohanim saw themselves as the instruments of G-d’s compassion and wanted to demonstrate to the people that everything is from G-d. Hence the rendering of the prayer as such: “May Adonai bless you; may Adonai cause Divine light to shine on you; may Adonai lift His Divine countenance upon you.” For the Priests, both blessings and tribulations were an outcome of G-d’s Will.

The atarah of my tallit reads: Da lifnei Mi ata omed? Know before Whom you stand. Like our Sage, I believe the G-d before Whom I stand is the Author of all blessings–maybe even some curses. And, mostly, I stand in gratitude. But, I am not completely certain that all rests b’atzei Shamayim–that is, in the hands of Heaven. We can count too many examples of radical evil that I just don’t believe are acts of G-d, as much as they are the product of morally errant, destructive human choices.

I am inspired by the notion here that there is a Higher Power than ourselves. And, given the priestly tradition, if I can be an agent of G-d in channeling Divine compassion, then I feel greatly honored to do so. That said, even if I am humbly grounded in the idea that G-d is the Source of all possibilities in the world, I still must choose my options wisely.  We all do. And, the fact that we have choices to make in the first place indicates that it is not enough simply to espouse what we believe.  We must also demonstrate our faith through choosing some kind of transformative action–a sacred effort that actually makes a difference in the world. 

Ritual, by itself, cannot turn faith into action.  But something like the Priestly Blessing can help us call to mind required action: a love for life, an abiding compassion for human beings, shaped betzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image).  The Birkat Kohanim can spark in us the memory of what it means to stand at Sinai, receive Torah, and embrace the ancient path of the Priests  The Duchanan can remind us that we are a holy nation but also have to be a collective force for good.  The Priestly Blessing shines light on the belief that G-d Name, G-d’s Seal of Truth is stamped in our souls.  And this Seal of Truth becomes the basis for our ongoing commitments to tzedek (justice) and kavod (respect).               

So, at the end of our tefillah, when I invoke the ancient blessing of the Kohanim, I want it to spur us to love our neighbors a little more, to take care of the earth a little better, to leave a little more in the corner of our fields, to treat the widows and the orphans a a little more compassionately, and to pursue peace a little more fervently. 

In the spirit of Shavuot now concluded, having stood again at Sinai and renewed our covenant with the Holy One of Blessing, may G-d help us learn how to bless and keep each other, as G-d blesses and keeps us.  May G-d help us be a light to the nations and be kind to others, just as G-d shines Divine light on us, smiles upon us and acts graciously to us.  And, may G-d’s Divine Spirit lift us to a more peaceful reality soon. And may we do our part to help make the world more holy and whole, so that we may be worthy of having G-d’s Divine Name stamped on our souls.  Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation.

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