The Priestly Blessing

One of the most famous, beautiful, and ancient passages of the Tanach, the Priestly Blessing, is a simple and poignant poem. You’re supposed to be a Jewish Priest, or Cohen (like Leonard), to give the Blessing, but nowadays it gets used by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Some give it to their children every Shabbat, and it was definitely said at my wedding in January. And it’s also one of the oldest pieces of the Tanach we have found in outside sources. Some amulets with an abbreviated version of the blessing were found in an archaeological dig in Israel and have been dated to around 600 BCE.

But so what? On the face of it, this blessing is a pretty normal, platitude-laden selection of poetry. In English, you probably wouldn’t even call it poetry. In Hebrew (which you can hear recited by the foremost priest of our time by clicking the Leonard link above), the rhythm of the lines flows beautifully together. I think that with this blessing, as with most liturgical pieces, it is easy to accept it as sodden, stagnant, and stale ancient work. If we can give the writers of the original blessing, who lived around 3000 years ago or so, the benefit of the doubt, let us accept that they were probably trying to transmit something of value. In fact I find this the most meaningful way to approach the traditions found in Judaism. As a people we have somehow managed to survive beyond the bounds of any great empire or great culture, and although we have clearly changed and grown throughout the millennia we are still Jews. So there must be something worthwhile that our ancestors are trying to pass down through these pieces that have survived for so long.

With each line of the blessing, the perception of the Israelites relationship to God is revealed more concretely. The first line is the most clear. The word “bless” in Hebrew is related to the word for knee. This is often used to explain why, in certain Hebrew prayers, we bend our knees and bow. So the idea that God would take a moment to “bend his knees” before us means for God to take notice of us — to stop for a moment and give us his full attention. Anyone who has read much of the Tanach, though, knows that it isn’t always so good to have God taking notice of you. Sometimes things like this happen. So to clarify what is meant by seeking God’s attention in the first line, the writers wrote “guard you” which is often translated as “keep you,” but means ultimately the same thing. But even this must be clarified in the next line. The blesser asks for God to be gracious upon his reflection about the blessee, letting his “face shine,” which is clearly related to smiling or looking upon someone with favor. Finally, the graciousness is clarified in the third line as meaning bringing the blessee shalom. Shalom is most often translated as peace, but it also means wholeness.

Each line, then, begins with the blesser asking for God to pay attention to the blessee, and each line is concluded with a hope for this attention to be favorable. In this day and age of aggressive atheists and burgeoning scientific materialism, it seems unfathomable to believe that these people’s deepest anxiety, revealed in this revered and ancient blessing, was God’s attention. Similarly, the fact that this blessing reflects a view of God’s face directed at an individual being of great importance makes it easy to discount the blessing as a primitive people’s reaction to the uncertainty of life, in hopes that their huge man in the sky would keep an eye on them.

In some instances this might be true, but I think we can give our ancestors greater honor than that. Look only so far as God’s name in the poem, and Exodus 3:13-14. God’s name, as used here, is related to the verb “to be,” and in Ex. 3:13-14 God explains his nature, or being, as entirely existential. By this I mean that God, even in his own words (or however we want to explain how Moses interacted with God), is that which is constantly becoming. The Hebrew verb in 3:13-14 can be translated it many ways, and the line is most famously translated as “I am that I am.” It’s not that simple, though. The verb is not in a perfect tense, which is to say the “being” act is still unfolding when he is speaking, and I’d argue is still unfolding today. So if God is the unfoldment of everything, as he appears to say in Exodus 3:13-14, what would God “raising his face” to an individual mean?

Everyone knows the deep anxiety of living in time. We all keep an eye on our watches, our youthful marking of the years passing with cakes and candles become less celebrations and more fearful as our age accrues, and the speed of the year seems to accelerate as we move further and further away from our births. This God of the Israelites revealed himself most candidly as time, and his name (יהוה) is repeated over and over again in the blessing is clearly related to the verb “to be” (היה). If we look at this God as being the director of time’s passage, this prayer is asking for something we all want. We want time to be gentle. We want the future to unfold in a way that makes us whole and at peace. And when I think of what the metaphor of the face of time would mean, I think it would mean the cutting edge of the future. It would mean the moment where the unfoldment occurs, when the present becomes the past and we can feel the formless void of the future beginning to coalesce into the present. I think that this blessing in particular has been brought forward to us along this constantly destroying and rebirthing stream of history simply because it charts this anxiety so very well. Who doesn’t want the future to unfold in such a way that guards them, smiles upon them, and brings them wholeness and peace? Who, when they consider our relationship to time like this, doesn’t feel the same anxieties that this blessing is so clearly attempting to ameliorate?

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