Intimacy with the Divine

This week’s Dvar Torah on Parshat Naso was adapted from one written  by Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Art by Matt Manley

There are few texts from the Torah more universally invoked than Birkat Kohanim: the Priestly Benediction. We Jews use it all the time: at weddings, bat mitzvahs, preschool graduation ceremonies, Shabbat dinner tables.
Indeed, it has become an integral element of our liturgy incorporated into the conclusion of the Amidah as part of the Birkat Shalom, the prayer for peace, in traditional services.
And within the non-Jewish world, the three-stanza blessing has come to be such a central part of their service that many Christian worshipers presume it is indigenous to the Christian tradition. But it is not; it comes right from this week’s Parashat Naso (Numbers 6:24-26):
May the Eternal bless you and protect you!
May the Eternal's countenance shine upon you
and be gracious unto you!
May the face of the Eternal lift up before you
and grant you peace!
Have we ever stopped to consider what exactly the prayer is saying? Perhaps there is a reason for the broad popularity of this ancient text.
Where else can we find the actual words that the functionaries of our people, the Kohanim (priests), recited in the performance of their sacred duties? This is it. The priest would extend his hands over the people and say these words.
But the power of the three-fold blessing extends well beyond its historical authenticity. The structure of the prayer is nothing short of extraordinary, a precise geometric construct that is simply brilliant in design.
The first line is comprised of 3 words, the second line 5 words, and the third line 7 words. The symmetry even extends to the letters: 15 letters, 20 letters, and (you guessed it) 25 letters. None of this is by accident.
If, indeed, the three-part blessing grows from beginning to end, if each of the three stanzas builds and expands upon the previous verse—at least in heft of letters and words—then should it not stand to reason that the meaning of those words, that the content increases as well?
To truly appreciate the Priestly Blessing, we would do well to pay close attention to the verbs.
May the Eternal bless you and protect you!
In the first verse, God "blesses" and "protects" us. To be sure, blessing and protection are not small things. We spend a good part of our lives obsessed with attaining these goals. I have always thought of them as the bare essentials. A home. Food and clothing, the material necessities of life.
Perhaps even more important, they are things that God gives to us, or even that God does to us. In this first verse, God transforms us.
May the Eternal's countenance shine upon you
and be gracious unto you!
In the second verse, we move beyond physical gifts and allude to the emotional. The word “vi’chuneka,” meaning "and be gracious unto you," comes from the same root as the word chein, which can mean grace or beauty. More than just a thing that I need to survive, chein enhances the quality of living.
The implication is that of a life of contentedness, a life of meaning. But even more, it comes via God's light.
Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the third and final verse. Yes, we get shalom/peace. But it's how we get it that is so important.
May the face of the Eternal lift up before you
and grant you peace!
In this climactic blessing, God lifts up God's “face;” the face we are told no one shall see and live (Exodus 33:20). The implication is clear: we get to see not only God's face, but God also is making eye contact.
This is the endgame of all religious life-- to be in relationship with the Holy One.
Many times throughout Torah, God's anger is implied by the turning away of God's countenance or “face.” Here in the Priestly Benediction, the ultimate blessing is to be in perfect harmony with the Holy One, to be in sacred relationship, panim el panim, "face to face."
And it's the same way with us, in our own relationships.
The physical gifts we bestow upon each other are nice, but they are not what we really want from each other. We might need them, but they are not at the core of our desire. (And if they are, then we have confused our priorities.)
Even the non-corporeal gifts of chein, the "feelings" we pursue from our relationships, are lovely by-products, but are not what we ultimately seek.
As anyone who has ever had a falling out with a dear friend or a lover knows, the hardest thing to do is to look them in the eye. Because at its core, eye contact is about intimacy. It requires complete vulnerability and trust.
The desire to look into the other's eyes, the strength to overcome our own insecurities and open our eyes to the other, symbolizes a relationship of complete openness and mutuality.
This is what is implied in the word “shalom.”
Shalom means wholeness, absolute harmony, intimacy, trust. Where the distance between the I and the Other is too small to measure.
This is the pinnacle of what we aspire to in the Human-Divine relationship.
And as this quintessential three-fold blessing suggests, when “the face of the Eternal lifts up before you,” it means that we have achieved intimacy with the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom