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A Bag of Bones, Beauty, and Blessing

  • A Bag of Bones, Beauty, and Blessing

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

On the day that the Mishkan was fully erected, the princely chieftains were instructed to bring identical tribal offerings to the Mishkan (Numbers 7:10). It is striking that God's instruction to bless the people (Numbers 6:22-27) preceded these gift offerings-as if to make clear that the priestly blessing was completely unconditional. God loved us.

So no gifts were necessary. Yet they were brought. Why? Perhaps because knowing we were loved drew us to return that love. We were blessed as a people; as a people, we would return that blessing with our own offerings, tribe by tribe. The gifts would benefit everyone; without them, there would have been no sacrificial rites. These last two actions in Naso were reciprocal: a gift of blessing for the people, a gift of offering for God.

Thus the Israelites were now organized into a "sacred community," a k'hilah k'doshah : protecting one another, protecting the Mishkan ; offering gifts to the Mishkan , shielded by God's blessing. That priestly blessing is so powerful for us to this day:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons:
"Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
YHVH bless you and keep you!
YHVH deal kindly and graciously with you!
YHVH 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.
(Numbers 6:22-27)

The great eleventh-century French commentator, Rashi, as usual, was interested in the simple meaning of the text: What was this about? Why three verses? He explained as follows. The first verse, "YHVH bless you and keep you!," offered material protection; God would watch over us and protect us from harm. The second, "YHVH deal kindly and graciously with you!," promised enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment. The third, "YHVH bestow (divine) favor upon you and grant you peace!," meant that God would suppress His anger toward the people (see Rashi on Numbers 6:22-27). With God's anger averted, the people could be granted a life in physical and spiritual balance that would make us whole, bringing us into peace.

Blessing acknowledges holiness: thus we are holy. That this blessing is communal is important because we had already been given instructions for personal protection, enlightenment, and peace. The army would protect everyone from outside attack. Following the mitzvot of Torah would elevate each person. Bringing offerings to the Mishkan would check one's greed and promote one's spirit. Because of these individual pathways, the community could be, and would be, worthy of blessing. The community would become a k'hilah k'doshah . It would encourage personal growth for the sake of the whole, teaching the individual that the sum is greater than the parts. It would guide each person toward the most important nourishment of all-a better world for all, not just for some.

Naso states that the priest-any priest-will offer this blessing upon the community. Yet this meant uttering God's secret name YHVH publicly so all would hear it; later tradition held that only the High Priest was permitted to pronounce the name, on Yom Kippur, hidden behind the sacred curtain protecting the Ark of the Covenant, audible to his ears alone. Why the change?

When reverence was prevalent among humankind, the Ineffable Name was openly enunciated in the hearing of all, but after irreverence became widespread it was concealed . . . ( Zohar Naso 146b)

What "irreverence"? Perhaps it was the abuse of God's name. Perhaps, as happens to so many human beings, individual priests became corrupt and used their position for personal advantage. Serving themselves, their pronouncement of the blessing was false. Can a community be holy if its leaders are not? A power-driven priest reflected irreverence absolute. How might this have been evident?

Zohar Naso 147b offers an anecdote: "We are told that a priest not beloved by the people ought not to take part in blessing the people. On one occasion, when a priest went up and spread forth his hands, before he completed the blessing he turned into a heap of bones. This happened to him because there was no love between him and the people. Then another priest went up and pronounced the blessing and so the day passed without harm. A priest who loves not the people or whom they love not may not pronounce the blessing."

I heard this story from Rabbi Don Goor: The Baal Shem Tov was the founder of Chasidism; his name meant "Master of the Good Name," of God's name. He was visiting a village, and 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."

To be responsible for God's name, he understood the implications of guarding it, using it, and living by it. Like the priest who loved his people, the Baal Shem Tov understood that blessing derived from his own deeds and character, and from his appreciation of the goodness in the lives of his people.

On a trip to the Sierra Nevada in the summer 2004, my Native American guide shared this story. When younger, he had been sent on a ritual journey. Night advanced and he grew anxious; he began to intone this prayer:

Watch over me.
Hold your hand before me in protection.
Stand guard for me, speak in defense of me.
As you speak for me, so will I speak for you.
May it be beautiful before me,
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful below me,
May it be beautiful above me,
May it be beautiful all around me.
Restore me in beauty.

He explained that the wisdom of this prayer was to ensure not only his protection, but also to guard all those around him, stretching in all directions. His safety included everyone: family, friends, and strangers.

To bless one is to bless all. To be blessed is to find ourselves in relationship with one another, linked. "Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them."

Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the spiritual leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. She is the editor of Mishkan T'filah, A Reform Siddur.

Pursuing the Common Good after the Collapse
Davar Acher By: 
Jonah Dov Pesner

Rabbi Frishman makes a profoundly important argument at a critical moment of crisis in America and across the world. As we face the worst economic collapse since the Depression, she reminds us of a key principle of Jewish tradition: in a k'hilah k'doshah, "a sacred community," the individual understands that the sum is greater than the parts . Judaism has always argued that our obligations, "mitzvot," do not serve the limited end of individual happiness alone; rather, they are the acts upon which we depend for the sake of the common good.

The Jewish historic focus on community is first ratified at the Sinaitic encounter, during which the hundreds of thousands of individual voices all spoke in startling unity, "All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do" (Exodus 24:7); it is then actualized with the building of the Tabernacle-the first post-Sinai activity of the Israelites (Exodus 35:4-39:43). This week, we continue reading the story of our people's journey through the wilderness; it is a story of nation-building, not personal fulfillment.

As American Jews, especially living in this particular moment in time, we feel keenly the tension between individual ambition and communal responsibility. Since 1980, the dominant theme of American culture became a disdain for government and the decline of voluntary associations (see Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000]). A fundamental assumption took hold: the unfettered free market would solve all our problems. Our cars, houses, and credit card bills only grew larger as private consumption became the driving force of our national behavior.

The economic collapse of 2009 challenges all our assumptions of the primacy of the free market and to leads us consider the role of individual greed in sabotaging the common good. Rabbi Frishman reminds us of an eternal truth that echoes into the present: "the most important nourishment of all-a better world for all, not just for some."

It is time for modern-day priests (clergy, elected officials, and leaders of the business and civic sectors) to offer the blessing of a vision of a just, equitable America in which all souls may share in our collective abundance. It is time for us Americans of all religious backgrounds, like our Israelite ancestors before us-to respond to the blessing from above by offering our own gifts-from our charity to our taxes-to pay for the just society that is required of us. As one great president, John F. Kennedy, said during a vastly different era, "Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country."

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center.

6/06/2009
Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842