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The Priestly Blessing and the Road to Peace

Parashat Nasso - May 22, 2021

We are by no means an ascetic tradition. We embrace the material, with stacked bookshelves and multi-colored kippot. We revel in spiritual joy, with lavish meals, catchy tunes, and endless holidays and lifecycle events to encourage families to celebrate together.

Our reading today will end with a blessing we recite at the end of each prayer service.

יברכך ה׳ וישמרך

יאר ה׳ פניו אליך ויחונך

ישא ה׳ פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

May Adonai bless you and keep you. May Adonai’s face shine upon you, and may God grant you kindness. May Adonai’s face lift towards you, and may God grant you peace. 

Commentators throughout the centuries have seen this three-lined blessing as a progression. The first line - May God bless you and keep you - blesses us that we may receive all of our material needs and that no one shall take them away from us. The second line - May God’s face shine upon you, and may God grant you kindness - blesses us that we may merit spiritual fulfillment, God’s light and kindness in the form of knowledge of Torah - quite literally, enlightenment. And the third - may God’s face lift towards you, and may God grant you peace - blesses us that we may experience true safety and security. The blessing of material fulfillment leads to the blessing of spiritual fulfillment, which ultimately leads to the blessing of peace. 

The order and poetry here are crucial. 20th century Israeli commentator Nechama Leibowitz points out the number of words in each statement. Our blessing for material gains and protection comes first, with three words. Our blessing for spiritual fulfillment comes second, with five words. And our blessing for peace comes last, with seven words. Remember the significance of seven in the Jewish tradition - that number, seven, signifies wholeness, completeness.

Each statement in the Priestly Blessing builds on the former. One cannot achieve Torah learning without the basis of food, shelter, medicine, and the funds needed for books and supplies, or even, for supporting a synagogue like ours. As the Rabbis state, ein kemah, ein Torah - no bread, no Torah. We cannot study Torah when our attention is focused squarely on the basic needs of survival. We cannot study Torah if we don’t have the experiences of work, home, and life to guide our interpretation.

But the reverse is true in Mishnah Avot as well - אין תורה, אין קמח. Without Torah, there is no bread. Torah teaches us the backdrop of how to live successfully and gives us the tools of wisdom, community, and connection to God that can motivate us to keep working towards our well-being.

Without our physical well-being, without our spiritual well-being, and without the joy that comes from the interaction of both, we are unable to achieve the ultimate blessing of peace - that wholeness and completeness. When we feel safe and healthy, we are able to focus on learning. When we delve into our learning, we see different viewpoints. We come closer to building a community of understanding and safety, of both physical and spiritual peace. 

When we have what we need, when we let ourselves experience joy through the objects, the people, and the ideas we encounter, we give ourselves the fuel and energy we need to ensure comfort, health, and security for all those who live amongst us. And that - I believe - is the key to the peace for which we strive, that every single person has what they need. Without this kind of peace, we experience worry like what we felt the past two weeks - fear for the safety of our family, our friends, and us - the Jewish people.

We cannot feel guilt for the daily joy we experience, even from the material. That, too, can be Torah learning. But every day, we can ask ourselves how to pay that joy forward. For whom can we play our instruments, bake our brownies, or donate clothes that hold memories of years past? Who can we teach the lessons we’ve learned from the books piled on our shelves?

May we always have what we need. When we don’t, may we reach out to those who can help.

May we use our privilege of comfort towards coming closer to knowledge of God and the world God expects from us.

And may we have the strength and wisdom to - someday, yes someday - achieve peace among family and friends, among our community, and throughout the world.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784