I remember the day of my rabbinic ordination, some 26 years ago, as if it were yesterday. I had spent five years studying at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, first in Jerusalem, then in Los Angeles and finally in New York. There I was after all those years of study standing on the ornate marble bima of Temple Emanuel in New York City about to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel.
I approached the enormous carved ark in this awesome cathedral-like sanctuary and stood before Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, the President of the Hebrew Union College who stretched out his hands and placed them on my head. He then uttered words of blessing that go back thousands of years to this week’s Torah portion. God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use these very same words saying, “This is how you shall bless the children of Israel,” and then recites the words that have passed down throughout the generations ever since as the “priestly benediction.”
These words of blessing have become so powerful over the centuries that they are used both in Jewish and Christian tradition to represent the highest form of blessing that a rabbi or priest bestows upon the people. In fact, one of the most poignant moments in every bar and bat mitzvah, in every baby naming and every wedding ceremony is that moment when I place my own hands on that of the child or couple and utter these very same words of blessing that have echoed across the millennia of Jewish history to this very day.
You have all heard the words many times. Yevarekhekha adonai veyishmarekha….ya-air adonai panav aylekha vee-khuneka…yisa adonai panav alekha veyasem lekha shalom. “May God bless you protect you…May the face of God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you…May God’s face be lifted up upon you and grant you Wholeness, Fulfillment and Peace.”
But what is so remarkable about this blessing is not so much the words themselves, as beautiful as they are in Hebrew. What is truly revolutionary about this blessing, is what it reveals in the Torah about the very nature of God in Jewish tradition. For after all the miraculous signs and wonders that God wrought in Egypt, after the liberation from bondage that God brought about “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,” after God destroys the mightiest army on earth by drowning them in the Sea of Reeds, after the miracle of giving the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, feeding the entire Jewish people with manna from heaven every day, providing them with water in the desert and every other sign of God’s omnipotence and power, in the simple words that follow this blessing we discover what may be the most important quality of God we will every learn.
Immediately after God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use these words to bless the Children of Israel, the Torah quotes God as saying the following: “And thus they shall set my name on the children of Israel, and I shall bless them (emphasis mine).”
“…and I shall bless them,” it says in the Torah. After all the power that God has demonstrated in so many different ways, when it comes to blessing the people God needs human beings to bring God’s blessing to reality. It is Aaron and his sons through the words that they utter, the acts that they perform, the role that they play in the life of the community through which God is able to bless the people. What an incredible idea – that blessings don’t come directly from God, but rather God needs us to bring blessings into the lives of each other.
What clearer demonstration could there possibly be in the Torah of the inherent spiritual value and worth of the individual human being? When it says in the very first chapter of Genesis that God created human beings “in the divine image,” it is perhaps to teach us of our important role as co-partners with God in bringing the blessings of godliness into the world.
It is never clearer than in this week’s portion with the words of this famous blessing what an awesome responsibility we human beings truly have. Imagine what it means for our spiritual civilization to claim that the very creator of the universe needs us to bring blessings into each other’s lives. It is perhaps the ultimate spiritual challenge as well – to live our lives, to speak the words, to do the acts through which God’s blessings will be known in the world. What greater job could any of us have in life?