The Priestly Blessings: Protection, Grace, and Peace
In Jerusalem, looking down on Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, is a magnificent building: the Israel Museum. It houses an extraordinary array of exhibits, drawn from almost every age, place, and culture. There are items from the entire history and geography of the Diaspora. There is a large collection of idols and graven images from ancient Canaan, reminding us in the most vivid way of what our ancestors broke away from. But in many ways the most remarkable exhibit is not a work of art, nor is it a piece of exquisite workmanship. It is a tiny fragment of silver foil containing a mere fifteen words.
What makes it special is that it is the oldest surviving fragment of biblical literature, some 2700 years old. It comes from the era of the First Temple, built by King Solomon. It is so old that it is not written in the Hebrew alphabet as we recognize it today, which dates from the Babylonian Exile, but rather in the ancient Semitic script, the first alphabet known to humanity.
What is it that has survived twenty-seven centuries, half the history of civilization? By a wonderful stroke of fate, it contains perhaps the oldest liturgical formula still in regular use: the Priestly Blessings set out in the Torah portion called Naso in the Book of Numbers. Why someone wrote them down on this piece of foil, it is impossible to say, though it is likely that it was used as what is called in Hebrew a kamei·a—a good luck charm, an amulet that brings blessing to its bearer. I find it intensely moving that these words, first said so long ago, still stay with us in this physical form as well as in our prayers.
The Torah sets out the blessings in a simple passage found at Numbers 6:23–27:
The Eternal said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
the Eternal make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Eternal turn His face toward you and give you peace.’
The literary structure is precise. In the original Hebrew, the first line has three words; the second, five; and the third, seven. (As I have pointed out elsewhere, these prime numbers have special significance throughout the Mosaic books: three-, five- and seven-fold repetitions always signify a key word).1 Equally precisely, the first has fifteen (3×5) letters, the second has twenty (4×5) letters, and the third has twenty-five (5×5) letters.
What is the meaning of these blessings?
“The Eternal bless you and keep you.” Blessing in the Mosaic books always means material blessing:
So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Eternal your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul—then I will send rain in your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine, and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 11:13–15)
Against the idea basic to many other faith systems—which embrace poverty, asceticism, or other forms of self-denial—in Judaism, the world as God’s creation is fundamentally good. Religion is neither otherworldly nor anti-worldly. It is precisely in the physical world that God’s blessings are to be found.
But material blessings can sometimes dull our sensitivities toward God. The great irony is that when we have most to thank God for, often we express our thanks the least vigorously. We tend to remember God in times of crisis rather than in eras of prosperity and peace:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Eternal your God for the good land He has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Eternal your God, failing to observe His commands, His laws, and His decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Eternal your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery….You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” (Deuteronomy 8:10–17)
More than any other factor, it is this danger that has led to the decline and fall of civilizations. In the early, pioneering years, people are lifted by a collective vision and energy. But as they become affluent, they begin to lose the very qualities that made earlier generations great. They become less motivated by ideals than by the pursuit of pleasure. They think less of others, more of themselves. They begin to be deaf and blind to those in need. They become, in a word, decadent. What happens to nations happens also to individuals and families. Hence the first blessing, “May the Eternal keep you,” means: May God protect you from the blessing turning into a curse.
The second blessing says, “May the Eternal make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” The word “grace” has such strong Christian associations that we sometimes forget its centrality to Judaism. What is “grace”?
Judaism is a religion of intellect: of study, questioning, ideas, argument, and the life of the mind. The historian Paul Johnson described Rabbinic Judaism as an “ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.”2 Yet the Book of Proverbs says:
Let kindness and truth not leave you. Bind them around your throat; inscribe them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will find grace and good intellect in the eyes of the Eternal and humankind. (Proverbs 3:3-4)
Grace (ḥein) takes precedence over good intellect (seikhel tov).
In Kaddish D’rabbanan, the prayer we say after studying a rabbinic text, we pray for spiritual leaders who have “grace, lovingkindness, and compassion.” Once again, the power of intellect is secondary to the personal qualities of sensitivity and graciousness. Grace is that quality which sees the best in others and seeks the best for others. It is a combination of gentleness and generosity.
The second priestly blessing is that God may “make His face shine on you,” meaning: may God’s presence be evident in you. May God leave a visible trace of the Divine Being on the face you show to others. How is that presence to be recognized? Not in severity, remoteness, or austerity, but rather in the gentle smile that speaks to what Lincoln in 1861 called, in the concluding words of his First Inaugural Address, “the better angels of our nature.” That is grace.
“May the Eternal turn His face toward you and give you peace.” To make peace in the world we must be at peace with ourselves. To be at peace with ourselves we must know that we are unconditionally valued. That does not often happen. People value us for what we can give to them. That is conditional value, what the sages called “love that is dependent on a cause” (Pirkei Avot 5:16). God values us unconditionally. We are here because the Almighty wanted us to be. Our very existence testifies to divine love. Unlike others, God never gives up on us. God rejects no one and never loses faith, however many times we fail. When we fall, God lifts us—believing in us more than we believe in ourselves.
You are in a crowd. In the distance you see someone you recognize. This person is well known. You met him once, briefly. Did you make an impression on him? Does he remember you? Does he know who you are? Briefly your eyes touch. From the distance, he smiles at you. Yes, he remembers you; he knows who you are, he is pleased you are here, and by his eye contact and his smile he communicates these things to you. You are relieved, lifted. You are at peace with yourself. You are not merely an anonymous face in a crowd. Your basic worth has in some way been affirmed. That, in human terms, is the meaning of “May the Eternal turn His face toward you and give you peace.”
We speak of “seeking recognition.” It is a telling phrase. Even more than power or wealth or success or fame, we long for what we believe these things will give us: standing in the eyes of others, respect, esteem, honor, worth. We can dedicate a lifetime to this search, but it is not a good one. People do not confer respect for the right reasons. They follow politicians who pander to their worst instincts. They feel the charisma of pure power. They flatter the wealthy. They are like moths to the flame of fame.
The recognition that counts is our reflection in the eyes of God. God loves us for what we are and what we could become. God loves the good in us, not the successful or persuasive or charismatic. God, knowing us from within, ignores the image we try to project. God’s is the voice within us that says, “With Me, you do not have to pretend. I know you. I knew you before you were born. I know you because I made you, and I made you because I need you—or more precisely, because the world needs you. There is a task only you can do. Now, therefore, be strong and do it. You need not seek praise; you shall not be deflected by criticism; for I will be with you every step of the way. When you feel most alone, that is when I will be closest.” That is making eye-contact with God. It is the meaning of the third blessing: “May the Eternal turn His face toward you and give you peace.”
The most profound element of the blessing, however, lies in the concluding sentence: “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
In the ancient world, magi, oracles, and religious virtuosi were held to have the power of blessing. They were able to invoke supernatural forces. This is the meaning of what Balak, king of Moab, says to the pagan prophet Balaam:
A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed. (Numbers 22:5–6)
The biblical story of Balaam is a satire on this idea. Balaam’s contemporaries, and perhaps he himself, believed that blessing or curse lay within the power of the holy person. Nothing arouses the ridicule of the Bible more than self-importance. Balaam is made to see that his own donkey has greater powers of spiritual insight than he does. It is not the person who has power over God; it is God who has the power to reveal the Divine Self to the person—and if God so chooses, that gift can be given to a donkey rather than to an esteemed religious figure. Holiness is not (though it is often confused with)self-importance. True holiness is transparency to the Divine.
This is the meaning of “So they will put My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is not the priests who bless the people, but God. In themselves, they have no power. They are intermediaries, channels through which God’s blessing flows. An ancient midrash says:3
The house of Israel said to the blessed Holy One: “Ruler of the universe, You order the priests to bless us? We need only Your blessing. Look down from Your holy habitation and bless Your people.” The blessed Holy One replied to them, “Though I ordered the priests to bless you, I will stand together with them and bless you.”
It is not the priests who bless the people. Rather, it is through them that God blesses the people.
Finally, why was it the priests who were chosen to be vehicles of God’s blessing? One reason is self-evident: the entire being of the priests was within
the precincts of the holy; they were the intermediaries between the people and God. But there is another reason offered by the commentators. Apparently prosaic, it has nonetheless profound wisdom.
The priests had no share in the land. Unlike the rest of Israelites, they had no fields or farms, no businesses, no source of income through the work of their hands. Instead, they were dependent on the gifts of the people. The Israelites gave them a portion of the harvest called t’rumah, and they received other statutory gifts as well. So when the Israelites prospered as a whole, the priests benefitted. They had a direct interest in the prosperity of the nation. More than anyone else, the priests were dependent on the welfare of others. They were able to bless the people with a full heart, because if others were favored, they would they be as well.
This may seem like an appeal to self-interest precisely where it does not belong, in the sphere of the holy, the sacrosanct, the Temple. Yet the genius of Judaism is that it is not predicated on superhuman virtue. It is not addressed to angels or saints, but to human beings in all our fallibility. Though its ideals are surpassingly high, its psychology is realistic throughout.
It was Adam Smith in his masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, who pointed out that self-interest, when properly channelled, leads to the welfare of all. Smith himself sensed that there was something religious about this, and he gave it a quasi-religious name. He called it the “invisible hand,” which was as near as he could come to speaking about divine providence—the mysterious yet benign way in which, though each of us may be concerned about our own narrow welfare, we are part of something larger than ourselves in ways we cannot always understand.4 Our separate strands are part of a larger pattern.
The great Spanish poet and philosopher Yehudah Halevi noted that almost all our prayers are in the plural.5 We do not pray that God should give me something; we pray that God should give us something: “Bless us, O our Father, all of us together.” There is a spirit of community written into the liturgy. We do not ask our God to listen to the prayers of individuals, but rather to those of the Jewish people as a whole. When Moses prayed on behalf of the people, he was answered. When he prayed for himself—to be allowed to enter the Promised Land—he was not.
Halevi adds that there is nothing mystical in this idea. He explains it with the following analogy. Imagine, he said, trying to defend your house against enemies. There are two ways of doing so. One is to build a wall around the house. The other is to combine with neighbors and build a wall around the town. The former is more expensive and offers less protection. To act with others for everyone is easier and more secure.
So it is, he said, with prayer: if we pray only by ourselves for ourselves, then we rely on our own merits, about which we can never be certain. But when we pray together with the whole community, we combine our merits with theirs. Prayer is like a protective wall, and praying together is more powerful and effective. We do not need superhuman piety—merely enlightened self-interest—to realize that our destinies are interconnected. When we are blessed, we are blessed together. Prayer is community made articulate, when we delete the first-person singular and substitute the first-person plural.
Protection, grace, peace: these are God’s blessings, communicated by the priests. We are what we pray for. If you seek to understand a people, look at its prayers. The Jewish people did not ask for wealth or power. They did not hunger after empire. They had no desire to conquer or convert the world. They asked for protection, the right to live true to themselves without fear; for grace, the ability to be an agent for good in others; and peace, that fullness of being in which each of us brings our individual gifts to the common good. That is all our ancestors prayed for, and it is still all we need.
1 See my Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2009), p. 51.
2 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 340–341.
3 Bemidbar Rabbah 11:2.
4 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Part Two (New York: P. F. Collier, 1902), p. 160.
5 See Kuzari III 17.