August in Light

Martin S. Cohen

 

Our Torah is a book of riddles and puzzles, each one subtly designed to reveal a secret to the reader that might otherwise remain hidden. Sometimes these conundrums are presented as almost unnoticeable fissures in the narrative surface, other times as slight inconsistencies in this or that detail of ritual law. But there are also riddles present in the text that are not hidden at all, but are fully visible for students of Scripture to notice and then to solve…if they can. In some ways, these often present the greater challenges, precisely for being easy to discover yet paradoxically difficult to solve—somewhat in the way that truly great mystery writers leave all the most important clues out in the open for astute readers either to notice or blithely to skip past without pausing long enough to notice their potential importance.

The fourth aliyah of the Torah portion called Naso, corresponding to Numbers 5:11–6:27, is a very long one that covers the laws of the wife suspected by her husband of infidelity and, at roughly equal length, the law of the renunciant (a kind of self-obligated ascetic often called a “nazirite” in English, the latter term an attempt to anglicize the Hebrew term nazir).1 This material is completely independent of the biblical narrative in which it is embedded; various midrashic attempts to justify the juxtaposition of these passages and their position in the larger context notwithstanding, there is nothing in the unfolding of the narrative itself that suggests a reason for the inclusion of these particular passages at this specific stage of the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land.2 And then, immediately after setting forth these legal passages and before returning to the narrative of the dedication of the wilderness sanctuary (and without any indication to the reader that something of momentous importance is about to follow), the Torah pauses and in just forty-one words sets in place one of the great foundation stones of biblical theology by identifying specifically the choicest of God’s blessings.

The text is briefly put, but simple enough to follow. Moses, who has until now served as the Israelites’ highest-ranking religious leader, is about to be permanently replaced in that role by his brother Aaron, who is to assume the role of High Priest and who will serve in that office for the rest of his life: Moses will retain a life-long right to enter the Holiest of Holy Places at will, but Aaron and his sons are the ones who will henceforth function as the priests of Israel.3 And so, reasonably, just before Moses undertakes the final acts that will inaugurate the wilderness sanctuary for use, God stops him and instructs him to convey to Aaron and his sons that they are henceforth to bless the people using a specific fifteen-word formulary, which Scripture then proceeds to cite in full.

Questions about the passage abound. Are the priests only to use these words to convey God’s blessings to the people or may they also use others? Does the text mean to ordain the use of those words of blessing as a regularly-recurring ritual—perhaps one connected with the daily tamid offerings, or one formally to be undertaken weekly, monthly, or annually—or merely as one intended to recur from time to time, perhaps at the priests’ own volition? May non-priests recite these words of blessing or would that be the liturgical equivalent of non-priests usurping the priestly prerogative solely to serve at the altar? Must Aaron and his two surviving sons recite the blessing together or may one of them speak its fifteen words alone?

To none of these questions does Scripture suggest even a tentative answer. Nor is it made explicit what the relationship of this passage is to one earlier in the pentateuchal narrative in which Aaron, in the context of anointing the Tabernacle’s appurtenances for sacred use, is said to have “raised up his hands in the direction of the people and blessed them” (Leviticus 9:22). Is the text presented here, in Numbers, a transcript of the blessing pronounced there, in Leviticus? Or is this a different text entirely, one meant somehow to lessen the possibility of a recurrence of the kind of disaster recounted in the subsequent passage in Leviticus?4 And what of the blessing Aaron and Moses are described in Leviticus as having together offered to the people after a brief visit to the Tent of Assignation—is the blessing referenced there the same as the one given here in Numbers?5 To none of these questions does Scripture nod, even in passing—presumably preferring to allow countless generations of readers to puzzle over them and resolve them to the best of their ability. I will not here attempt to grapple with any of these questions, but will instead focus on a relatively straightforward issue: the simple meaning of one of the blessings Aaron and his sons are being instructed to convey to the Israelites.

The text at hand, Numbers 6:22–27, appears to imply that six specific blessings rest at the core of divine beneficence, and it is these six blessings that the priests of Israel are called upon to channel to their co-citizens. The blessings are a bit obscured in the standard English translations, but come to the fore when the text is translated specifically to identify them as the gifts God is prepared to offer to the faithful through the medium of a faithful priesthood:

May the Eternal grant you b’rakhah and sh’mirah.
May the Eternal grant you ha·arat panim and ein.
May the Eternal grant you n’si·at panim and shalom.

The text then goes on to characterize the bestowal of these six blessings as the functional equivalent of setting God’s holy name “upon” the Israelites, presumably a poetic way of suggesting that the priestly effort to bestow these blessings on the people will effectively imbue them with a perceptible sense of ongoing divine presence.

With only one exception, saying what the six blessings mean is a relatively simple task. B’rakhah (“blessing”) is divine beneficence itself and seems in the biblical context to imply primarily wealth (Proverbs 10:22), fecundity (Genesis 17:16), peace (Psalm 29:11), satiety (Exodus 23:25), and success, presumably of the commercial variety (Deuteronomy 23:21). Sh’mirah (“protection”) is also relatively simple to define: the notion that God guards the blessed and makes them safe is at the core of any number of biblical passages, such as the psalmist’s assurance that “the Eternal will guard you from all evil (Psalm 121:7).6 ein (“grace”) is also simple to define: it is the quality of natural gracefulness that inspires the affection of others; indeed, the regular biblical idiom used to note that one party has successfully stimulated feelings of warmth and friendship in another is to say that the former has found ein in the eyes of the latter. N’si·at panim (“lifting the face”) is a bit like ein, except that it appears to imply more precisely the experience of fostering after-the-fact affection rooted in forgiveness for past transgressions (Genesis 32:21) or of successfully garnering the respect of others (as, negatively, as Deuteronomy 28:50).7 Nor is shalom (“peace”) difficult to explain: it is the gift of peaceful existence to which all individuals, families, clans, tribes, and nations aspire, and which will be the hallmark of the messianic era when, as the prophet predicted, peace will come to the people as generously and unstoppably as flow the waters of a mighty river (Isaiah 66:12). The remaining blessing, ha·arat panim, is by far the most mysterious of the six, and it is specifically what I would like to attempt to elucidate in this essay by asking what Jews in Second Temple Jerusalem would have thought it to denote.

In Second Temple times, there was a widespread belief that God could symbolically be conceptualized as the light of the world.8 When, for example, the psalmist noted that God was his “light and salvation” (Psalm 27:1), he most likely did not mean that God is light or even that God is in some profound way like light; more likely, he was merely acknowledging God as his source of spiritual illumination, that he felt himself to “see” in God’s illuminating presence things that would otherwise have been invisible, thus hidden from him and unknown to him.9 The famous line “In Your light shall we see light” (Psalm 34:10) should presumably be understood in like manner. And similar too are passages like Micah 7:8 and Isaiah 60:19–20, which imagine that the day will come when the light of God’s presence will illuminate the entire world, heralding its ultimate redemption.

And it is precisely in line with such passages, as well as with the regular biblical predilection for anthropomorphic imagery, that we should seek to understand the reference in the Priestly Blessing to the illumination of the divine face. Indeed, by noting that God so favored Moses that their conversations took place face-to-face, the Torah seems merely to mean that their communion was personal, of the variety that would normally take place in human conversation when people speak to each other intimately and informally.10 Moreover, references to God’s face often denote little more than divine presence, as in the passage that commands every Israelite to appear three times annually “to see God’s face” at the place that the Almighty shall choose (Exodus 23:17 and 34:23, and Deuteronomy 16:16). Indeed, the fact that the text is impossibly vocalized in two of those verses to avoid saying that the pilgrims actually “saw” God’s face merely points to the fact that the text could easily be misconstrued by the theologically naïve and needed therefore to be masoretically “fixed” to avoid suggesting even obliquely that God actually has a face upon which the pious are being invited—or commanded—to gaze thrice annually.11

It would not be impossible, therefore, to explain the reference to ha·arat panim as meaning simply that among God’s choicest blessings is the one that consists of feeling God’s salvific presence—the so-called “face” of God—filling up one’s personal space in the manner of light filling up a dark room so that one feels the redemptive potential of faith in God as a real, ongoing force for good in one’s life, as a kind of heartening, quasi-luminescent presence capable of brightening up a life that might otherwise be characterized by the oppressive gloom occasioned by a sense of divine absence.

That, however, is only one way to interpret the text, because it is also possible to isolate any number of texts from the Psalter that seem to describe a Second Temple ritual designed not merely to inculcate faith but to go much further than that and actually to stimulate a sensory experience of perceptible divine light. In this context we must consider the argument set forth by such authors as Raymond J. Tourney to the effect that the Levites in Second Temple times pursued a kind of neo-prophetism that set them apart from their priestly overlords.12 (Taking the Torah and the Psalter as complementary works, one suffused with neo-priestly and one with neo-prophetic spirituality, does not mean that they should ipso facto be taken as discrete works rooted in unrelated realms of distinct spiritual experience. Just the contrary is the case, in fact: both works derive from the same spiritual universe, merely from different ends of it, and can for that specific reason so profitably be read in each other’s light.) For his part, the author of the Book of Chronicles, a resident of Second Temple Jerusalem with personal knowledge of the Temple and its workings, appears to have gone so far as to take an ancient text in the Book of Kings that mentions the priests and the prophets of old and update the passage by making it reference priests and Levites instead.13

Piecing together the evidence as collected by Tournay and others, including myself, a tentative picture emerges of a group yearning for sensory communion with God in the style of the prophets of old and whose efforts to achieve that level of intimacy with the divine realm were pursued within the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple.14 Much remains unclear. Even what these people called themselves, for example, is hard to say. The most frequent Hebrew word for “prophet” (navi) barely appears at all in the Psalter, but many texts do seem to name the group, albeit inconsistently.15 Sometimes they are “the Humble Ones,” but other times they are “the Seekers of God” or “the Seekers of the Divine Face.” Still other passages reference the group behind the mystic theology reflected in the Psalms as “the Upright,” “the Pious,” “the God-Fearers,” “the Righteous,” or “the Servants of God.”16 Regardless of how they referenced themselves, however, they seem clearly to have sought some sort of neo-prophetic communion with God. And, given the degree to which the Psalter is replete with divine oracles that appear to have been vouchsafed directly to the authors of the poems that preserve their gnomic texts, they appear also to have succeeded.

The prophetic experience sought by these individuals—perhaps like the model set for them in First Temple times by their spiritual forebears, the prophetic caste called the b’nei ha-n’vi·im—appears not only to have been aural in nature, but also visual. But what exactly these mystics sought to see is a more complicated question.17 The sources are equivocal. When one psalmist, for example, writes that God appeared to him “from” Zion, the epicenter of earthly delight (Psalm 50:2), it is hard to know exactly what he means. Even more tantalizing in this regard is Psalm 17, in which the poet moves smoothly from the assertion that his supplication is guileless (verse 1) to the justification that his feet have followed the path toward God (verse 5), to the ultimate hope that he can reasonably expect—at least someday—to merit the experience of beholding the face of God, which experience the poet himself defines as seeing the divine t’munah in a waking state (verse 15). That the Torah specifies that it was precisely this experience visually of beholding the divine t’munah, apparently a visually perceptible image of God, in a waking state (as opposed to within the context of a dream that set aside Moses from all the other prophets) only makes the psalmist’s point that much clearer in terms of the exalted level of communion he was hoping one day to experience.

Some biblical texts specify that this experience of the divine image is to be sought specifically within the confines of the Temple, presumably reflecting the fact that the levitical singers of the Second Temple period were not members of local prophetic castes like their pre-exilic (spiritual) forebears but rather Temple functionaries who pursued their religious quest within the context of service in the Jerusalem Temple.18 When the author of Psalm 17 wrote about his fervent hope to behold God in the sanctuary, for example, he uses the specifically prophetic word eezeh to denote the experience of gazing on God, just as does the author of Psalm 63.19 The rather obscure ending to Psalm 11 uses the same verb and must be interpreted, I think, along the lines of Psalms 17 and 63 as well, especially insofar as it too makes reference specifically to the divine face.20 Psalm 27 preserves the same connection between the experience of gazing on God and physical presence in the Temple, but refines the idea somewhat: the poet longs to dwell in the Temple permanently not merely so that he might one day see the divine face, but specifically so that he might gaze (la-azot) on the beauty (no·am) of God.21 The key to all these passages, I believe, rests in the notion that God, like the Holy Ark, must be presumed to dwell (as King Solomon notes almost clearly at 1 Kings 8:12 [=2 Chronicles 6:1]) in darkness and can therefore only be seen by mortals when (and if) God deigns to illumine the divine face, thus making it seeable. It is this specific blessing of intimate communion with the perceptible Godhead that the priests are being commanded in parashat Naso to channel to the Israelites through the medium of the Priestly Benediction.

Psalms 11, 17, 27, and 63 are all “David” psalms, but it is not only within psalms ascribed or dedicated to David that the notion of gazing on God occurs. In Psalm 42, for example—a psalm whose superscription mentions the sons of Korach—the poet calls out, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and gaze on the face of God?”22

Other psalms offer more oblique references that are only explicable with reference to less guarded passages in the style of the verses mentioned above. Thus, when the author of Psalm 140 declares that the upright (y’sharim) shall surely dwell in the presence of the divine face (verse 14), the reference is probably to the same kind of mystical experience held out elsewhere in the Psalter as feasible and attainable. Indeed, Psalm 111:1 makes specific reference to a smaller conventicle of y’sharim within a larger congregation whose members worship God with all their hearts. Similarly, the reference in Psalm 24:6 to a specific circle of people23 within the author’s world who seek the divine face is probably intended to refer specifically to those who cultivated the kind of mystic epiphany referenced elsewhere in the Psalter.

The reader perusing these passages will naturally wonder what they are really about. Surely, it seems intuitive that citizens of Second Temple Jerusalem—and even the most mystically inclined among them—could not possibly have expected to “see” God or God’s face in the Temple in the manner of pagans literally “seeing” their deities through the worshipful contemplation of their plastic images. To frame the issue differently, we might posit that the sought-after experience was called “seeing God’s face” simply as a literary convention, but that only prompts us to ask ourselves what such a convention could have been imagined to denote. What, in other words, constituted the experience known literarily—and presumably popularly as well—as exposure to the light of God’s face? What, if anything, did communicants actually see? Where did they see it? And how exactly did they know if the light was real or merely imaginary?

To pursue answers to these questions, we might turn to Psalm 80. The poem is dedicated to Asaph, of whom we know only what the Chronicler tells us: that he was a “royal prophet” in David’s court, that he was among the “trained singers of God” chosen to prophesy “with lyre, harp, and cymbal” by David and his generals,24 that he was among the musicians who played when David first brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (his instrument was the bronze cymbal), and that 128 of his personal descendants returned from exile in Babylon.25 Furthermore, Asaph is the only one of his contemporaries to have his name linked specifically to David’s by the Chronicler.26 And Asaph was also the individual whose name appears in the superscriptions to twelve poems in the Psalter, psalms that (just like those attributed to David) were still being sung centuries after the lifetime of the original Asaph.27 And among those twelve psalms is the poem we know as Psalm 80.

The poet’s language is remarkably open: “Appear, You who are enthroned on the cherubs (yosheiv ha-k’ruvim)” he commands, perhaps using the language of imperiousness to mask his own nervousness (Psalm 80:2). And then, having said it once, he goes on to return again and again to the same notion in an amazingly unguarded refrain: “Illumine Your face so that we [may see it and] be saved,” he declares, sounding just as if he means it simply and literally.28

The psalmist is unhappy and displays no reticence about explaining why a third of his daily drink is made up of his own tears. He is miserable. His neighbors hate him. His enemies treat him with open contempt. Nor is his unhappiness solely on the personal level. He writes of his nation, of Israel, as a vine once tended by God, but now left to fend for itself as marauders breach the wall once built to protect it, passers-by help themselves to its fruit, wild pigs gnaw at its runners, beasts feed on it, and malicious villains burn it at will—and indeed, when he does so, no one can fail to be moved by both the pathos and the bitter force of the poet’s lament regarding his people’s fate. And yet the poet’s proposed solution to his and his nation’s misery lies not in exacting revenge against those responsible, but rather in seeking communion with God. And the specific nature of the communion that he wishes to experience has to do, in some way, with the light of God’s face.

The psalmist wants God to appear before his eyes. By that, he apparently means that he wishes specifically for God to make accessible the perceptible quality of concentrated divine presence so that the poet and his friends might experience it personally or, at the very least, for God to make possible the experience that the poet and his friends interpreted as seeing the light of God’s face. Were they part of the group that gathered at night in the Temple courtyard to engage in this kind of esoteric endeavor?29 For people gathering, perhaps surreptitiously, in the dark, light would constitute the obvious medium in which to perceive the reality of God’s presence. But from where would the light issue forth? That, in nuce, is the question that churns and roils at the center of the matter…but it is one to which our poet offers no clear answer at all.

Can the answer be found elsewhere? Most of the psalmists held the theological presupposition that God dwells in heaven,30 but also exists—concentrated in the way that a different psalmist referenced as being “very present”—in Jerusalem.31 When the ancient poets referred to God dwelling “in” Jerusalem or “in” Zion, they undoubtedly meant to reference the notion that God’s Presence is most fully perceptible in the inmost sanctum of the Temple, the Holiest of Holy Places in which the Ark was kept in First Temple times. According to the scriptural references to that holiest of chambers, the room was in a perpetual state of darkness. It had neither windows nor a skylight, nor any lighting fixtures. (The great golden lampstand, the m’norat ha-zahav as King Abiya called it,32 was specifically not in the Holiest of Holy Places, but in the Holy Place immediately outside the curtain that separated the two rooms in the Temple.33) Indeed, when the High Priest entered the chamber on Yom Kippur carrying a golden censer of incense, the faint glow of the coals in the censer must apparently have served as the sole, scant source of illumination. The Ark itself may have disappeared into the maelstrom caused by the destruction of the First Temple, but the Second Temple featured a reconstructed inmost sanctum that, absent its sole appurtenance, nevertheless retained its least expected feature: its perpetual darkness.

The image of light coming forth from God to pierce bleak, impenetrable darkness provides the background to the Bible’s opening tableau. And the notion that God’s reality in the physical world is reasonably well symbolized by light—real, yet without physical bulk or dimension; existent, yet apparently unfettered by the natural laws that the ancients perceived to govern most other existent things; perceptible, yet not quite visible in the manner of illuminated things—is supported by all those scriptural passages that reference God as light.34 Yet there is a somewhat different feel to the passages in the Psalms which seem not merely to reference God as a personal light source (in that God can illumine one’s path, just as light itself can illuminate a dark road), but actually to seek to commune physically and fully really with God by being vouchsafed a glimpse of the light of God’s presence, of God’s face.

There are examples of both usages in the Psalms. When the author of Psalm 27 writes that God is “his” light, he presumably means that God guides him forward along a bright path that might otherwise be totally obscure.35 There are many other such passages as well, but not all references to God’s light seem simply to be metaphors for divine guidance through life’s twists and turns. When, for example, the author of Psalm 4 specifically frames his prayer as an entreaty that God shine on the poet and his fellow travelers the light of the divine face, he sounds as though he is referencing some specific experience of perceptible divinity more than merely the need the pious all feel for divine guidance.36 Nor need we assume that the communion sought with the perceptible God was limited to seeing. Psalm 81, for example, cited above with respect to the custom of gathering in the scant light of the New Moon, also references auditory experiences of various sorts: hearing a shofar blast, hearing speech in an unknown language, perceiving God’s presence in the context of “secret thunder,” and being invited personally to participate in prophetic speech.37

Nevertheless, the poets turn back again and again to the notion of knowing God through the experience of seeing divine light, sometimes referenced as the light of God’s face and sometimes not. And we will best understand the third of the six blessings with which the priests of ancient Israel were commanded to bless their co-citizens in this sense: that the high road to sensory communion with the Divine consists—not poetically, but actually—in being vouchsafed a vision of the light of God’s face. The psalmists, at any rate, return to the concept again and again: sometimes on the personal level, for example at Psalm 31:17 (“Let the light of Your face shine on me!”) or Psalm 119:135 (“Shine the light of Your face upon Your servant…”); sometimes on the level of the group, for example at Psalm 67:2 (“…then illuminate the divine face for us, selah”) or Psalm 80:4 (“Illumine Your face so that we may be saved”); and sometimes on the national level, for example when the psalmist at Psalm 44:4 uses that terminology (“With the light of Your face You showed them favor”) to describe the Israelite warriors of Joshua’s day.38

Moderns pondering the text of the Priestly Blessing as presented in Numbers 6 might do best to imagine themselves present in old Jerusalem when Ezra mounted the wooden platform set in place just before the Water Gate on the first day of the seventh month, the day we call Rosh Hashanah, to read aloud from the Torah of Moses, “which the Eternal had [previously] bequeathed to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).39 He began reading, as the narrative in the Book of Nehemiah notes, at dawn’s first light and he read until midday, addressing himself to “man, woman, and sage.”40 Clearly, this must have been a multi-day operation. (As any habitué of Sabbath services in any traditional synagogue can attest, it simply would not be physically possible to read the Torah aloud from beginning to end in the space of a few hours, no matter how quickly it were to be read.) And, indeed, reference is made later in the chapter to a second day (verse 13). Presumably, there were more. And then, on one of them, Ezra must finally have gotten to the passage in Numbers regarding the Priestly Benediction.

The assembled would surely have been listening with rapt attention when he got to that passage which formally identifies the choicest of God’s blessings, the ones that collectively constitute the bestowal of God’s sacred name upon the people (Numbers 6:27). This, the people gathered by the Water Gate must have felt, must be the essence of God’s end of the bargain, the specific blessings God will grant the people if they uphold their end of the covenant. Would they have wondered why the text seems so intent on presenting as a priestly prerogative a set of blessings that includes at least one specific boon connected far more directly with the Levites’ version of Israelite spirituality than the priestly version? Or was that the point—for the priests to indicate that however seductively any might proffer the ultimate experience of sensory communion with God or with the face of God or with its light, it is they and none other who can and may offer blessings in God’s name to the faithful? Or perhaps is the explanation less overtly political and simply rooted in the fact that among the poetic blessings that tradition and later law instructed the priests offer the people was one that the authors of the Psalter would have understood as an oblique reference to the kind of communion with God that they themselves sought (and occasionally even achieved) but which the priests of Israel would have taken as a mere metaphor?

Nor are these the only unanswerable questions. What exactly the assembled crowd would have thought each specific blessing to imply is an excellent question, but not one that can be answered with certainty after so many intervening centuries. But Scripture makes a point of noting that there were Levites listening to Ezra that day…and, possessed as we are of their hymnal—it is our Book of Psalms—and thus of their version of the spiritual heritage of Israel, we can understand well what they, at least, would have taken the Torah to mean when it numbers among the best of God’s blessings the opportunity to experience a glimpse of the light that emanates from God’s face. To them, it would have meant that among the greatest of God’s gifts is knowledge of the Divine rooted neither in theory nor in learned dogma, but in sensory knowledge of the perceptible Godhead, and principally in hearing—perhaps the secret thunder, perhaps the heavenly t’ruah, perhaps an actual oracle (the Psalter is filled with oracles in which God’s words are openly quoted)—and, even more convincingly and profoundly, in seeing the light of God’s perceptible Presence shining out in the cold night from deep within the Holiest of Holy Places, a secret sanctum left in perpetual darkness from which light could only emanate from one sacred source: the living, perceptible Presence in that place of the God of Israel, the God whom a psalmist labeled both Light and Salvation, and for intimate communion with whom the psalmists and their latter-day followers—which today surely includes the entire House of Israel—have always yearned and still do yearn.41

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

NOTES

1 “Renunciant” is my own neologism, one of several developed in the course of preparing my forthcoming Torah translation and commentary.
2 For some midrashic attempts to justify the specific location of these laws in the narrative of Numbers, see some of the material gathered at Bemidbar Rabbah 10:1.
3 Moses’ permanent right to enter the Holiest of Holy Places is suggested by the final verse in parashat Naso, Numbers 7:89. See, e.g., the comment of Rabbi Ḥayyim ben Attar (1696–1743) in his Or Ha-ayyim commentary ad loc.: “[The way Numbers 7:89 is phrased] implies that Moses retained the right [to enter the Holiest of Holy Places] at will.” The translation “Holiest of Holy Places” (for kodesh ha-kodashim, conventionally translated as “the Holy of Holies”) also derives from my forthcoming Torah translation and commentary.
4 The disaster referenced is the death of two of Aaron’s sons recounted in Leviticus 10:1–2.
5 Leviticus 9:23. Rashi understands the narrative in Leviticus to imply that Aaron offered the people the Priestly Blessing subsequently presented in Numbers, but Moses and Aaron together to have pronounced the blessing known to moderns as the final verse in Psalm 90. See his commentary to Leviticus 9:22, s.v. va-y’var’kheim and to verse 23, s.v. va-yeitzu va-y’var’khu et ha-am. The translation “Tent of Assignation” too is from my forthcoming Torah translation and commentary.
6 Note that the Hebrew yishmorkha at Psalm 121:7 is nearly identical to the form found in the Priestly Blessing, yishm’rekha.
7 See also, however, the passage at 2 Kings 5:1, where the phrase appears simply to reference respectful affection absent the notion of forgiveness, and cf. also Job 34:19.
8 The Psalter, which contains at least some poetry that references the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile, clearly reached its final form during the Second Temple period. Undoubtedly earlier material was included, but in this essay I will reference the book itself as Second Temple work that was eventually canonized as sacred writ.
9 Despite the Chronicler’s bald assertion that there were women among the choristers in the Temple (and supposing that some version of the Psalter was used by such choristers in Second Temple times), I will refer to the psalmists here using masculine pronouns. The Second-Temple-period author of Chronicles was, at any rate, formally describing the First Temple at 1 Chronicles 25:4–7 rather than the one standing in his own day.
10 This assertion appears both at Exodus 33:11, in the account of the setting up of the preliminary Tent of Assignation (set up by Moses outside the camp as the locus for prophetic communion with the God of Israel), and also at Deuteronomy 34:10 as part of the story of Moses’ death.
11 For readers without Hebrew, what this mean is that the vowels added to the received consonantal text cannot be logically or reasonably deciphered as they appear and are clearly presented as they are to make the theological point that when the text speaks of “seeing” God, it means to imply that one is seen by God by virtue of being present in the Temple, the earthly locus of divine presence. In Exodus 23:17, the use of the preposition el in place of the pleonastic et makes the text read reasonably well as pointed. (This latter verse can profitably be read in light of Psalm 84:8.) Hebrew is written primarily with consonants; the effort to add vowels to the text to fix its pronunciation (and, in many cases, its meaning as well) was undertaken by a school of scholars in late antiquity primarily located in Tiberias and popularly referenced as the ba·alei m’sorah, in English “the Masoretes.”
12 Tourney’s book, Voir et entendre Dieu avec les Psaulmes ou La liturgie prophétique du Second Temple à Jérusalem, was published in Paris by J. Gabalda & Co. in 1988 and was brought out in J. Edward Crowley’s English translation as Seeing and Hearing God with the Psalms: The Prophetic Liturgy of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Journal of the Study of the Old Testament in 1991 as no. 118 in their Supplement Series.
13 The passages are 2 Kings 23:2 and 2 Chronicles 34:30. The natural assonance of the Hebrew words n’vi·im (“prophets “) and l’viyim (“Levites “) is also worth noting.
14 See my Travels on the Road Not Taken: Towards a Bible-Based Theory of Jewish Spirituality (London, Ontario: Moonstone Press, 1997), and cf. also Jon D. Levenson, “The Jerusalem Temple in Devotional and Visionary Experience,” in Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages, ed. Arthur Green (New York: Crossroad, 1986), pp. 32–61.
15 The word navi appears three times in the Psalter: once in a superscription mentioning Nathan “the prophet” (Psalm 51:2), once to note that the despair the faithful felt when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians had specifically to do with the sense that the absence of a Temple somehow implies the absence also of prophecy (Psalm 74:9), and once in a passage that treats the terms “prophet” and “anointed ones” (presumably, following Rashi and Radak, royal princes) in poetic parallelism and prays that God watch over them both (Psalm 105:15). An earlier term for prophet, ro·eh (cf. 1 Samuel 9:9), does not appear in any psalm.
16 The humble ones/anavim: Psalm 69:33; seekers of God/dor’shei Adonai: Psalm 34:11; the upright/y’sharim: Psalm 140:14; the pious/asidim: Psalm 132:9 (where the term is specifically used as the counterpart of kohanim, and cf. Deuteronomy 33:8, where the term asid is specifically applied to the tribe of Levi); the God-fearers/yirei Adonai: Psalm 118:4 (where the group within the Temple population that aren’t Israelites or priests, presumably Levites, are called God-fearers); the righteous/tzadikim: Psalm 118:20; the servants of God/avdei Adonai: Psalm 134:1. Regarding the name “God-fearers,” it is worth noting that the sole time that the actual word “Levite” appears in the Psalter (at Psalm 135:20), it seems to be the functional equivalent of “God-fearers” at Psalm 115:11.
17 For what it’s worth, the Chronicler offers the fascinating detail that King Uzziah of Judah (mid-eighth century B.C.E.) actually sought out a certain Zechariah who was adept at seeing God (if that is the right way to translate the Hebrew ha-meivin bi-r’ot ha-elohim at 2 Chronicles 26:5) so as to be able to do the same himself when seeking communion with the divine realm. But who this Zechariah was and whether he was formally connected to the prophetic caste in his day, none can say.
18 The b’nei ha-n’vi·im mentioned above appear specifically not to have been tied to Jerusalem or to the Jerusalem Temple, but rather to other locales, such as Naiot (1 Samuel 20:19–20), Bethel (2 Kings 2:3), or Jericho (2 Kings 2:5).
19 In Psalm 17:15 and Psalm 63:3, the specific form of the verb used is azitikha, which usage seems to denote an experience actually had rather than merely yearned for. In this context, how interesting it is to note the Chronicler’s comment at 2 Chronicles 35:15 that Jedutun, to whom Psalm 39 is attributed, bore the title of ozeh ha-melekh (“the royal visionary”), in which title ozeh is merely the nominal form of the verb used in Psalms 17 and 63 to denote the visual prophetic experience. (Cf. the superscriptions to Psalms 62 and 77, however, in which the word y’dutun appears to denote some kind of musical instrument.) The word ozeh itself does not appear in the Psalter.
20 Psalm 11:7, following the comment of Rabbi David Kimḥi (1160–1235, called Radak) ad locum.
21 Psalm 27:4; cf. Isaiah 33:17. References to the divine face and and divine beauty are brought together at the end Psalm 16 as well. (The word at Psalm 16:11 for divine beauty, ne’imot, is a version of the word no∙am that appears in Psalm 27.)
22 Psalm 42:3, reading ereh for eira·eh along with the traditional Targum to Psalms. The other “sons of Korach” psalms are Psalms 44–49, and 84, 85, 87, and 88.
23 Using the NJPS translation of dor as “circle.”
24 That the singers had 288 descendants is no coincidence, that number being a neat multiple of seventy-two, the number of elders described by Scripture as constituting the original prophetic caste as ordained by Moses in the story presented in Numbers 11. ( I am taking the reference to Eldad and Medad to be in addition to the seventy “upon whom the spirit rested” [Numbers 11:25] for a total of seventy-two.)
25 David and his generals chose Asaph and his colleagues to become prophet/singers: 1 Chronicles 25:1; Asaph designated “a royal prophet”: 1 Chronicles 25:2; the number of descendants of Asaph, Heman, and Jedutun: 1 Chronicles 25:7; the first raft of public prophets ordained by Moses: Numbers 11:16–30; prophets singing in the Temple: 1 Chronicles 25:6; Asaph playing a bronze cymbal:1 Chronicles 15:19, cf. 1 Chronicles 6:16–33 and 16:37; 128 descendants of Asaph returned from exile in Babylon: Ezra 2:41 and Nehemiah 7:44.
26 2 Chronicles 29:30. It is unclear whether Nehemiah lived before or after the Chronicler, but he—Nehemiah—made the same point in his diary, noting specifically that the musical organization of Temple already existed “in the days of David and Asaph; see Nehemiah 12:46.
27 The “Asaph psalms” are Psalms 50 and 73–83.
28 The refrain appears three times in the poem, at verses 4, 8, and 20. The Hebrew is ha·eir panekha v’nivashei·ah.
29 Such a group is mentioned in the following psalm in the Psalter (at Psalm 81:4), where the poet’s circle is described as gathering by the meager light of the new moon on the eve of the festival celebrating, presumably, the new month.
30 See Psalms 11:4, 73:25, 115:3 and 16, and 139:8.
31 See Psalms 9:12, 76:3, 132:13–14, and 135:21, and cf. Joel 4:17 and 21, Zechariah 8:3, and 1 Chronicles 23:25. “Very present” is the Hebrew nimtza me’od at Psalm 46:2.
32 2 Chronicles 13:11.
33 Regarding the curtain between the Holiest of Holy Places and the Holy Place, see Exodus 26:33.
34 These passages are complemented by all those in which God’s presence is symbolized by fire. Cf. Genesis 15:17, where God’s legally binding presence in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham is signally by the appearance of “a smoking oven and a lighted torch,” as well as those passages in which God’s presence is symbolized by a giant pillar of fire (e.g., at Exodus 13:21 and 14:24 or Numbers 14:14, cf. Nehemiah 9:12) or, less grandly, by a single bush unnaturally aflame (at Exodus 3:4).
35 Psalm 27:1. The poet, writing in the first person, references God as “my” (i.e., not “his”) light. The prophet Micah was saying roughly the same thing when he declaimed hopefully, “Whenever I find myself dwelling in darkness, the Eternal serves as my light” (Micah 7:8).
36 Psalm 4:7. The poet does not say who is group is exactly, but merely prays in the plural that God grant a glimpse of divine light to “us.”
37 The shofar blast: verse 4; speech in an unknown language: verse 6; perceiving God in “secret thunder”: verse 8; an invitation to prophecy (“I am the Eternal your God, who bought you forth from the land of Egypt: open your mouth and I shall fill it up”): verse 11.
38 In this regard, note too how the opening strophes of Psalm 67 resume three of the blessings assigned by Numbers to the priests of Israel. And cf. also Daniel 9:17, where Daniel prays for God to shine the light of the divine face on the ruined Temple in Jerusalem.
39 For a very accessible survey of scholarly opinions relating to the date of Ezra’s activity in Jerusalem, see John Bright, A History of Israel (4th edition published posthumously; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 391–402.
40 Nehemiah 8:2. That meivin here denotes the Levite is obvious from verses 7 and 9 later in the same chapter.
41 Light and salvation: Psalm 27:1. Is the passing reference at Exodus 34:29–35 to Moses’ face shining with light meant as the ultimate act of prophetic imitatio Dei? Maybe!