One of my favorite passages in the Talmud, is the phrase, “More important than reciting blessings, is to be a blessing.” In many ways it sums up for me the Jewish attitude about the role of human beings in the world. Our job is to be a blessing to others, not only to our family and friends, but to strangers we don’t even know and even to the very earth itself.
I have often taught that the single most important idea in the entire Torah is that which is found in verse twenty-six of the first chapter of Genesis where it states that God created human beings “in the divine image.” If we actually believed this idea, that each human being on earth is a reflection of the divine, we would of necessity act in a very different manner than most of us often do.
How could we possibly scream at another driver in a car on the road simply because he was driving too slow and we missed making a green light, if we saw that driver not as merely a slow and perhaps thoughtless person, but rather as the divine image of God driving a car? How could we put down our children, abuse our spouses physically or emotionally, belittle an employee, or treat any other human being with disdain and disrespect, if we actually believed we were gazing at the image of the divine whenever we looked upon them?
That is what makes this idea so powerful, so potentially life changing, even world changing for us all. In many ways I see my task as a rabbi in this light. I imagine my role as encouraging, inspiring or sometimes merely reminding people that every time they interact with another human being, they are standing in the presence of the image of God. It’s a tall order and I suppose I fail more than I succeed, but the goal remains the same.
When Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke at KI last year, he echoed the same theme. “Imagine every time you talk with anyone,” he suggested, “that you are talking with God (ie. The image of the Divine). How would you talk to that person? How would you feel about that person? Wouldn’t you hold that person in high esteem, perhaps even a bit of reverence? That is truly the challenge of living as a spiritual being in the world.”
And that is an idea suggested by this week’s Torah portion as well. What does it mean to be blessed in our day and age? Where do blessings come from? Are they found in formulaic words uttered by a priest or minister or rabbi? Are they found carved into ancient tablets or written on ancient scrolls of parchment?
This week we find words of blessing given by God through Moses to Aaron and his sons with which they are supposed to bless the people of Israel. It is a three-part formula through which Aaron and his sons as the high priests of the people can invoke God’s blessing on the Jewish people and, according to the Torah, cause God’s name to be forever linked with the children of Israel.
These words, these three short phrases, have been uttered by rabbis and cantors for hundreds and thousands of years as a way of invoking God’s sacred blessing upon babies as they are named, couples as they are wed, and students as they finish courses of study.
What makes these words of blessing so powerful? Throughout history the commentators of Jewish life have understood them to make reference to material blessings, intellectual blessings, and spiritual blessings. According to Jewish tradition, for our lives to be complete, we need all three. It isn’t sufficient to be blessed with wealth, with material things and all the conveniences and toys of modern living. From material things alone, no one fashions a complete life. Every week in my office I speak with “successful” people who can attest to that.
The “priestly blessings” as they have come to be called, are like a short lesson in how to achieve fulfillment, spiritual wholeness, and emotional peace in life. They remind us that we need both physical sustenance (im ain kemakh, ain Torah says the Talmud, “Without sustenance there can be no Torah”), intellectual sustenance (“Learning, learning, learning, that is the secret to Jewish survival,” wrote the 19th century Jewish philosopher and writer, Ahad Ha-am), and spiritual wholeness (“It has been told you what is good and what God requires of you, only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8)
It is really the last, the Shalom or “wholeness of the heart” that matters most. The goal of life for Judaism, after all, isn’t happiness, it is holiness. And holiness comes as a result of experiencing shalom, or wholeness, completeness, inward harmony and tranquility, and a sense of fulfillment in life. That is the real challenge of living a Jewish life, and that is the real challenge that synagogues face in truly making a difference in the lives of our congregants.
We are reminded by the priestly blessing this week, that anyone can speak words of prayer or blessing. For them to really count, they must come from a place of spiritual integrity, of faith in the future, and of trust in the power of words to change our lives.
“More important than saying blessings, is being a blessing.” It is the challenge of being a blessing in the lives of others that has kept our striving for Tikkun Olam, for healing the world, alive and thriving in our congregation for years. That is truly our job – to figure out how to bring blessings into the lives of others and thereby fulfill our obligation as human beings created in the image of the divine, to remind people that they too represent God’s image in the world.