The Priestly Blessing: The Face of God
What is God?
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Walk into an Ashkenazi Orthodox shul on a Jewish holiday or a Sefaradi synagogue any day of the week for morning davening. Towards the end of the Amidah you will notice a few guys and maybe some boys heading towards the front of the shul near the cabinet that houses the Torah scrolls. They drape their prayer shawls over their heads, turn around to face the congregation and start saying some sort of blessing. Then the chazzan says a word that they repeat in a chanting tone. This goes on for about 20 words, interrupted occasionally by a resounding ‘Amen’ from the congregation or perhaps by some strange humming from the guys reciting the blessing. Then its over, and these guys go back to their seats and continue doing whatever they were doing before.
This little interjection is probably the oldest part of public Jewish prayer. It goes back to the Torah, to the book of Numbers (6:22-27). In Israel, the general custom is to do this every day. Most Sefaradi congregations follow this practice outside of Israel also. It’s a good bet that this is the oldest blessing in the world still in use. In fact, among the oldest discoveries of ancient Hebrew writing is a small copy of this very blessing (missing a few words, but it’s clearly the same blessing). As far as we know this blessing was recited daily in the second temple from its beginnings about 2400 years ago. There is no reason to think it was not recited in the first temple from its beginnings about 2900 years ago. To drive the point home, it was probably recited daily in the Mishkan wherever it was located, from as long 3,300 years ago. This blessing is as old as it gets among all things currently in practice.
But all this is peripheral to the main thing, which is the blessing itself. This blessing is actually three blessings in one. The three blessing are linked together through a common theme. Here are the blessings as they are written in Bamidbar. ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons saying, “This is how you will bless the Israelites, say to them: May Hashem bless you and protect you. May Hashem shine His face upon you and show you grace. May Hashem lift His face to you and give you peace” And they shall place My name on the Israelites and I will bless them’.
First off we must ask a few key questions about this blessing. The most obvious question is this line that comes after the blessing: ‘and they shall place My name on the Israelites and I will bless them’. What does it mean to ‘place My name’? Second, what is the need for Hashem to bless them if the Kohanim already gave the blessing? But the blessing itself has its issues. It seems like there are three parts to it, like three separate blessings. But isn’t it just saying the same thing three times? What is this ‘light of His face’ thing in the second blessing? For that matter, what is Hashem’s face? Is there a difference between ‘showing grace’ and ‘giving peace’? Hashem’s face apparently grants both so they must be linked somehow. But how?
Finally, we have the general idea of a blessing. What really is a blessing? This is not the standard blessing found all over the place in Jewish prayer. The normal blessing blesses God. This blessing has the Kohanim blessing the people, as the introductory instruction clearly states. So the priests are blessing the Israelites by invoking the face of Hashem to shine upon them or to be lifted to them. It is a bit odd – priests seemingly having the power to direct the face of Hashem to bless the people. What gives the priests this power? What forces Hashem to obey their blessing?
Dealing with the last question first, perhaps this blessing is not so different from future Jewish blessings. Perhaps it is even the prototype for them. Blessings invariably contain some element of praising Hashem, but it is always connected with something that Hashem does. This blessing appears to not bless Hashem but the Israelites. But does it really? It is true that the Israelites will be the recipients of whatever it is that Hashem will do, but they are not the subject of the blessing. That is Hashem only. To understand how this is so we must look at the relationship of the three parties involved in this blessing. First there are the Kohanim. They are the ones invoking the blessing through their words. Second there are the Israelites. They are the recipients of what the blessing hopes to impart. Third is Hashem, who is both being implored to bless the Israelites and recognized as the source of blessing.
The same structure exists in an everyday blessing on food. The person eating the food is saying the blessing. It happens that usually that person is playing the second role of receiving the benefits of the blessing, in this case, the food. Hashem is being recognized as the source of blessing. The crucial element in all this is the praise of Hashem as the ‘source of blessing’. The classic word Baruch, used in almost every rabbinic blessing, expresses this idea exactly. This word is not mere praise or thanks of the usual sort. It is a statement that Hashem is blessed because Hashem is the sole source of all blessing.
This is a rather subtle point that is often missed in the religious attempt to invoke God for blessing. Too often the emphasis is on what the person wants or needs and not on the more precious goal of being cognizant of the source of blessing. The personal needs, be they health, or security, or comfort, or success, or whatever, may be very important, but they are nothing in comparison to the eternal quest to recognize the divine nature of where those things and the need for them originates. It is not the results of the blessing that we truly need, but to bless the source of blessing.
Now we can attempt to penetrate the text of the blessing itself. The first statement of the blessing, ‘May God bless you and protect you’, is what almost anyone would expect from God. This line has become somewhat of a classic expression in many religious and non-religious circles, ranging everywhere from Fiddler on the Roof (when Tevya and his wife sing this blessing to their children) to Bob Dylan (it’s a line in ‘Forever Young’). To be blessed is to be able to recognize God as the source of blessing. It’s a little bit circular but it still works. It’s being able to cut through all the needs and realize that the true blessing is not in material things but in spiritual attitude.
This leads to the second line, ‘May Hashem shine His face upon you and show you grace’. This line is not as clear. God’s face is an expression that comes up several times in the Chumash in one form or another. This usage right here is the classic. Obviously, the verse indicates that there is a ‘light’ shining from God’s face. It is this light that gives grace. Hashem’s face is generally understood as a Biblical representation of Hashem’s essence. This verse thus expresses the hope that Hashem shine the divine essence upon us.
The result of this is grace. Hashem’s face gives grace. Grace is that almost magical spiritual quality that just makes things good when they really aren’t necessarily all that good. It puts a spin of, ‘Ok, so we’ve got problems; but it could be worse’. It is not so much a concrete reward that you can put in the bank as a different attitude on life. In spite of the problems, or maybe even because of them, the graced person is able to look on the good side and push on. That person can find joy in the simplest of things, in things that another person might ignore or consider to be trivial, like a new day or the feel of the air, in comparison to more ‘important’ things like money or good looks. This is truly a divine gift. Receiving it is wonderful, because it enables the receiver to gain a glimpse of the face of the Giver.
The gift of grace is the prerequisite for the third statement, ‘May Hashem lift His face to you and give you peace’. The word lift is sometimes translated as ‘turn’, but the meaning is the same. God has plenty of things to do. There is at least one universe to run, several billion human beings who have all kinds of needs and agendas, to say nothing of who knows how many other beings all over the universe. There are animals, plants, angels, and assorted other players in this complex cast. They all have to be overseen in some way. What are the chances of God looking at little old you? You have to admit that it’s pretty small.
Then again, what exactly does God have going on that is more important than you? Hashem is a personal God after all, so our personal needs should be on His list of things to do. But why should God turn to you of all people? Maybe it’s because you turned to God. A blessed person recognizes that the most important thing is to recognize God as the source of blessing. Such a person qualifies for the gift of grace, the attitude that all-in-all, God is doing a pretty good job of running the world. That person, that blessed and graced person, will attract God’s notice. God will lift up His tired, busy, and overworked face and look that person’s way. What will God give that person? Peace, Shalom. What more could we ask for?
Perceiving the Image
This blessing is about as uplifting as they come. Who wouldn’t want to have this blessing directed their way. But it’s not as simple as just showing up in a shul at the right time, spending a few minutes listening and then walking out and having a beer. This is not a few minute stop off. It may take a lifetime. If the synagogue route doesn’t work for you there are other ways to get this message. You can just repeat the phrase to yourself when the moment calls. You can meditate on it and let it penetrate into your soul. You can even listen to Tevya and Golda sing it in their wonderful rendition in Fiddler on the Roof. Or you might want to take a trip down memory lane and listen to Dylan do his thing in Forever Young.
The image portrayed here is that of God’s face - God’s essence. We may not be able to see that face but we sure can feel what it gives us. It gives us blessing, grace, and peace. The face of God was a Biblical metaphor. It was the way this concept was imagined in Biblical times, as a face looking down and shining its light. The image of the face still lives in us. Whether we relate to this image of a face any longer is not important. The main thing is what the face does. From over 3,000 years ago when Aaron first said this blessing, to Biblical temples, to the countless synagogues through the millennia, to the Jewish institutions that are still very active today, this blessing reminds us of that face, that image, and it gives us hope, satisfaction, and joy. The blessing lives on even after 3,000 years have gone by and so does the image. God is the source of blessing. The face of God shines upon us and graces us. It turns to us and gives us peace.
One of the main differences between atheists and believers is in the ultimate source of reality. To the believer, it’s not just here – it’s here because God, or whatever that person calls the source, created it. Recognizing the source is the first step in true spirituality. Isn’t it better to perceive being here as coming from some ultimate source than to perceive it as just being here for no reason whatsoever?
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