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ב"ה

The Priestly Blessings

Friday, 10 June, 2022 - 5:20 pm

Izzy owned a small deli in Stamford Hill, in London. One day, a tax inspector knocked on his door and questioned him about his recent tax return. Izzy had reported a net profit of $250.000 for the year and he wanted to know all about it. "It’s like this," said Izzy. "I work like a maniac all year round and all of my family helps me out whenever they can. My deli is closed only five days a year. That’s how I made $250,000."
"It's not your income that bothers us," said the taxman. "It's the business travel deductions of $80,000 that worries us. You entered on the tax return that you and your wife made 28 business trips to Israel, Italy, Switzerland, France, the US, Hawaii, and the Caribbean Islands. What are all these business trips about?"
"Oh," said Izzy, smiling. "I forgot to tell you that we also deliver!"
If you have ever been to the synagogue during the Priestly Blessing—presented in this week’s Torah portion Naso you know it is a unique moment. The kohen (priest) removes his shoes and approaches the podium, his face hidden behind his talit. He extends his hands towards the congregation, fingers parted, and palms stretched outwards. He waits, in anticipation of the holy moment. Those in the congregation hide behind their own talits to avoid gazing directly upon the kohen, for the divine presence rests upon the kohen during this time.
Prompted by the cantor, the kohen intones the sacred words “May G‑d bless you and keep you. May G-d shine His countenance upon you and may he be gracious to you. May G‑d show favor to you, and may He grant you peace.”
When I grew up, a survivor shared this story. It was the eve of Yom Kippur in 1945, a few months after the war was over. The Klausenberger Rebbe, who lost a wife and 11 children in Auschwitz, staying in a German DP camp was preparing himself for the holiest day. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. A young girl came in and said, "Rebbe, I do not have a father anymore. No one will be able to 'bless me' before Yom Kippur."
You know, it is an ancient Jewish custom that every father blesses his children on Yom Kippur Eve right.
But that year, so many children were left without parents. So this girl came to the Rebbe saying, I have no father to bless me and I want somebody to bless me.
The Kloisenberger Rebbe put his hands on her holy head and blessed her the way a father blesses his daughter on the eve of Yom Kippur. With tears in his eyes, he told her how precious she was, what a gift she was, and how much he was praying for her bright future…
Five minutes later there was another knock on the door. It was another girl, again without a father, again with no one to bless her before Yom Kippur. Again, the Rebbe went through the same routine. He put his hands upon her head, and he blessed her the way a father blesses his daughter:
This repeated itself again and again. The orphans kept on coming and the Rebbe attended to each of them, as though he was their father. On that eve of Yom Kippur, the Rebbe blessed over eighty orphaned girls… He placed his hands on each of them and gave them the love, the undivided attention, the confidence children yearn for so deeply.
What is the secret behind these blessings? Why have Jewish parents been blessing their children for three millennia with these words? What power and message do they contain?
There is a profound and enigmatic Midrashic interpretation of these priestly blessings.
One answer is very vital. Many people are accustomed to giving blessings generously, and it is indeed a benevolent practice. For example, we bless a sick person, “May you have a speedy recovery,” and we bless a person in financial straits with hatzlachah in his livelihood. With this law our Sages are imparting a very important lesson; while giving blessings is laudable, it is extremely important that we also “raise our hands” and “stretch them out” — that we do something materialistic to help the person in need. Don’t only give good wishes. Do something!
 
The priestly blessings are unique. “May G‑d bless you and keep you. May G-d shine His countenance upon you and may he be gracious to you. May G‑d show favor to you, and may He grant you peace.” What do these blessings mean? And how does one merit to experience them? On this, our sages bring three sources in the Torah where it says “koh.” Each one of the sources cited and characterized by the term “koh” all relate to a singular way of seeing reality.
When the Creator promised Avraham that he would be blessed with children, the Torah tells us that the Creator “took him outside and said ‘Look down upon the heavens and count the stars . . . so (koh) shall be your children. Astrologically, Abraham and Sarah were told they were infertile; they could not have children. G-d says to Abraham, “Get out from the realm of astrology.”
The promise is that the history of the Jewish people will fundamentally not unfold by the natural laws of politics, economics, military, and social forces which generally determine the fate of nations. Israel is to be guided by a supernatural course, by a Divine miraculous providence, based on which it will survive, thrive, and prevail. Jewish destiny will depend on Jews’ relation to Torah law and prophecy over and above natural law. It is this Divine presence in history that Abraham and his future descendants are bidden to see.
When Abraham was on his way with Isaac to the Akeidah—the binding—on Mount Moriah, the Torah relates: “On the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off, the Midrash elaborates: “What did he see? He saw a cloud enveloping the mountain.” That is, he perceived it as the cloud of G-d’s glory. The Midrash proceeds to say that Avraham then turned to Yitzchak: my son, do you see what I see?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
He then said to his two servants, ‘Do you see what I see?’
‘No’, they answered.
‘Since you do not see it, abide here with the donkey, as I and the lad will go to this place, bow down and return to you.’
Thus, Yitzchak, like Avraham, sees what others do not see, namely, the “cloud,” the presence of G-d in the world of human events, leading through many Akeidahs, many painful moments, and many sacrifices, to the ultimate glory, to the Redemption, to Moshiach, and to the Holy Temple, on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The Jew sees the Divine in all the journeys.
In a similar manner, when Israel was assembled at Mount Sinai, the Almighty addressed Moshe, “So (koh) shall you say to the house of Yaakov and tell the children of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” What the children of Yaakov saw was unique in history. They saw the Creator lifting them out of the usual categories of history, out from under the oppression of the Egyptians who by all the predictable laws of history should have crushed the Israelites by their superior powers. But Israel sees things very differently.
Do you believe in the arrow of history? Or to put it another way, do you think history is cyclical or directional? Are we condemned to do the same thing over and over, generation after generation — or is there hope for some enduring progress in the world order?
For some, history is an endless cycle of clashing power politics. The same patterns repeat. Only the names and places change. The best we can do in our own time is to defend ourselves, manage instability and avoid catastrophe. But expect nothing permanent, no essential alteration during human affairs.
The Jew believes otherwise. We believe that the international system can eventually evolve out of its Hobbesian state of nature into something more humane and hopeful. The Jew sees a “cloud” connecting the journey of history to Mt. Moriah. We see the Divine in the long, turbulent voyage of civilization.
This is the core message of the priestly blessings—to be blessed by the vision that G-d’s light guides our lives and defines our reality. That we always have the perception to see meaning in our lives and the presence of G-d and purpose in every reality.
Three messages, three blessings, have sustained us for 3000 years: One, we strive to live the most successful life, but never forget that all our blessings are gifts from G-d. Two, we always remember that G-d has placed each of us here on a mission to impact our environment, to be ambassadors of love, light, and hope, through our Torah and our mitzvot.
This, then, is the question of the Midrash. What is the source for all the blessings of the Jewish people? What allowed us to bless and be blessed this way? What allowed us to experience these priestly blessings? The answer is “koh”. It is the three “koh’s” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, providing us with the extraordinary vision in history, to be able to be blessed and bless these unique blessings.
A story:
There was a gentleman in a shul in New Rochelle, NY who on the holidays always left the synagogue before the priestly blessings. One man tried for years to figure out why he always walked out before the Kohanim came up to bless the people, but to no avail.
After years of wonder, finally, one day the elderly man relented and shared the story behind his strange custom.
It was Passover in Bergen Belzen, he began to share. The Rabbi of our community managed to get a hold of some matzah, illegally baked under the evil eyes of the SS; maror we had plenty of… In the barrack, the Rabbi conducted a most inspiring seder, reciting the Haggadah by heart and having us all join in the traditional song. We were in Bergen Belzen, enslaved by Hitler, but a little spark in our hearts that night was free.
Toward the end of the seder, an SS officer barged into the barrack. He immediately knew what was going on. He asked, who was responsible for arranging this seder? If you do not tell me, I will kill all of you. And the Rabbi responded: It was all me. I am responsible.
The next morning, they took him out to be shot on a mound, in the presence of all the Jewish inmates, to teach us all a lesson. The Germans lined us all up and they brought our Rabbi to a hill that overlooked the camp.
Right before the execution, the Rabbi asked the Nazi killer if he would be granted a last request. “Even barbarians grant their victims a last wish. You are a cultured German; certainly, you will do this for me.”
The Nazi consented.
The Rabbi said, I am a Kohen and I would like to bless my people.
The holy Rabbi lifted both of his hands, in the gesture of Kohanim for thousands of years, and in a thundering voice, which sounded like it came straight from Sinai, our fear Rabbi began to bless us:
"May G-d bless you and protect you.”
“May G-d make shine His countenance upon you and give you grace.”
“May G-d lift you up and grant you peace.”
Moments later, his corpse lay in a river of blood.
And the man in the synagogue concluded: “The priestly blessings said by my Rabbi moments before his murder in Bergen Belzen still ring in my ears, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I can't bear the thought to hear it from anybody else. I want to retain that pure holy voice in my imagination. Thus, I walk out of the shul before the Kohanim come up to recite these blessings…
This survivor articulated the above truth. These blessings have been ringing in the Jewish ear for three millennia. They have kept us going through thick and thin. They have given us focus, direction, perspective, and stamina. They allowed us to move forward with resolve and hope. They continue to do that today.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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