The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, was once visiting a village. The people clamored for him to bless them. The excitement was palpable as everyone gathered together. They looked up to him and waited. But the Baal Shem Tov stood before them with his head bowed, silent. The people waited. He was silent. People became restless; “Bless us!” someone called out. Still, there was silence. Then the Baal Shem Tov lifted his head and said, “I cannot bless you. Please, bless me. Bless me with your deeds and your lives.”
What is a blessing? How do we bless each other and how do we enter into God’s blessing? When we ask for God’s blessing we are asking God to infuse our lives with holiness, to be present with us, to stand next to us, to help us through our journey of life. When we ask a fellow human being for blessing, are we asking for the same? The most famous of the Torah’s blessings is in this week’s parashah, the priestly blessing of the Cohanim.
The Eternal One spoke to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons:
“Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā
God bless you and keep you.
Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā
God deal kindly and graciously with you.
Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm
God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace.”
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
We say this blessing at the end of every Shabbat Musaf Amida, and in some congregations today, it is still recited by the Cohanim, their faces covered, their fingers splayed into the ancient shin. The language of the Torah is confusing, the beginning of the passage has God tell the Cohanim to bless the people while the end of the passage concludes that it is God who blesses the people. Our tradition holds that this is not the Cohanim’s personal blessing to bestow, they are acting as God’s vessels, passing God’s blessing to the people, this is why the Cohanim cover their faces with their tallitot. And yet, the Cohanim serve a role… the people have a role in blessing each other. We have many instances of people blessing other people in our Torah –Isaac’s blessing to his sons, Balak’s blessing of the people, and in our liturgy– the parents Shabbat blessing of their children.
There is a partnership, a cooperation between humanity and God that is perhaps unique to Jewish theology. For not only do we ask for God’s blessing, we offer blessing on our actions throughout the day, waking, eating, seeing a rainbow… offering praise to God, sending blessing heavenward. It is a partnership that has been compared by the rabbis to man’s preparing the ground for seeds while God offers the rain and sunshine. The Talmud offers this story: (Shabbat 89a):
When Moses ascended on high he found God adorning the letters of the Torah with crowns. God said to Moses: Is it not customary in your town to say “Shalom” –wish a person peace and hello? Moses answered: Does a slave greet his master so? God answered him: You should at any rate have given me a helping hand by wishing me success on my work.
On the surface this is a sweet midrash about the close relationship between god and Moses. On a deeper level, it is a metaphor for God and Moses’s respective roles of leadership. “Shalom” also means the good and welfare of people. Did Moses see to the people’s welfare as a society asks God? Moses answers, “I’m only human”. To which God replies, “you could help.” (Rabbi H.Y. Pollak, p. 65 in Nechama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar)
By claiming our partnership with God, Jewish theology puts responsibility for our blessings in life on our own shoulders. We pave the way for the coming of the Messianic age by doing tikkun olam, by acting to heal the world. We ready the path for God’s blessing by reaching out first with our actions and lives.
It is notable that our parashah first asks the people to participate in God’s blessing, and next dedicates the Mishkan. The Mishkan is the symbol for God’s presence dwelling among the people. As the Cohanim offer God’s blessing to the people, our covenant is recalled, that God will stand by us and that we will keep faith in God. With our covenant of miztvot in place, we can dedicate the mishkan, and invite God to dwell among us.
Rashi offers this interpretation: In the priestly blessing God promises first to watch over us and our physical welfare – yishmereicha -I will guard you, second God offers us spiritual enlightenment – panav eleicha – I will show my face to you, and finally God blesses us with Shalom –peace, a balance of the physical and spiritual . This balance of blessing is paralleled in our parashah, with the physical elements of the mishkan and the spiritual elements needed to be a people of God intertwined and connected.
To dedicate the Mishkan, the tribal chieftains each bring identical gifts. The gifts affirmed the centrality of the Mishkan and the worth of each tribe; no tribe had higher status than another. Just as the priestly blessing invokes a partnership, so too does the Mishkan, it is built by the people, it is dedicated with acts and deeds, people bringing of themselves to the community.
The Hebrew word blessing is taken from the root brch, meaning knee, because when we say our blessings in synagogue we bend down and bow, beginning at the knee, lowering ourselves before God. The name for our parashah, “naso” means “raise up.” As the people become a community, a nation, they are asked to “raise up”, to offer up gifts of themselves, to arise and take responsibility in partnership with God for making the people worthy of blessing, for raising the very walls of the mishkan as symbolic of raising themselves with deeds and acts to a height where God can reside among them.