Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gezuntheit!, Mr. Spock, amulets, and comets / Naso

How are “Gezuntheit!”, Mr. Spock, jewelry, and a comet crashing into earth and causing the extinction of humankind related?

How often have we said or heard, “Gezuntheit” or “God bless you” after a sneeze? We have been taught to say it, but do we think about what it means? Probably not — we’re being polite.

This week’s parashah, Naso, includes the most famous blessing of all time. In fact, its words comprise the earliest inscription of biblical text that has been found. Nearly 15 year ago, two amulets dating to the late seventh century B.C.E. were excavated in Ketef Hinnom outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon wrote of them:

This is now the earliest occurrence of a Biblical text in an extra-Biblical document, significantly predating the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is also the oldest extra-Biblical reference to YHWH, the God of Israel. (In Life in Biblical Israel by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, 1987, p. 306.)

Today, you can find pendants inscribed with this blessing, facsimiles of the Ketef Hinnom amulets.
Ketef Hinnom amulet

The blessing on the Ketef Hinnom amulets was invoked by the Priests in the Temple as they held their hands in a particular position. Leonard Nimoy used this hand position for Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Hand Salute in Star Trek. People who trace their descent from the kohanim of old sometimes have it carved into their grave markers.
This blessing has been invoked by many people in many situations. On the big screen, the president of the United States, as played by Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, invokes this blessing when he informs the nation that an approaching 7-mile wide comet may lead to the extinction of humanity.

By now you may have guessed that I’m talking about Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction of Numbers 6:22-27.

God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons saying, Thus shall you bless the Israelites: Say to them:

May God bless you and protect you.
May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God raise the divine countenance to you, and grant you peace.

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

The Priestly Benediction: Numbers 6:22-27 (The first letter of verse 25 is a letter missing from this graphic image of the Torah text. I don't know why.)
Birkat Kohanim has been studied, discussed, analyzed and explicated more times than I can count, through the lenses of history, halakhah, linguistics, psychology, Kabbalah, and even geometry. I won’t review them here, but rather note the structure I see and three things I learn from it.

First, structure. The three lines confer three separate blessings — protection, grace, and peace — the components of the life we all want to live: safety, comfort, and serenity. The most elemental is protection or security. Without a sense of basic security, life is out of control, chaotic, even savage. With safety reasonable secured, we can dare to hope and pray for grace, the gifts of heaven in whatever form they come (health, family, friendship, prosperity). With protection and grace, we have a shot at shleimut, genuine wholeness or peace.

To offer the Priestly Benediction is to offer what we all want and need, but cannot always assure for ourselves. We can forge loving relationships, pursue meaningful projects, and perform righteous deeds, but we cannot guarantee for ourselves protection, grace, and peace. Birkat Kohanim is all-encompassing; it’s about the really big stuff.

Next, three things I have learned.

First, we might be tempted to ask: why do we need priests to bless us? Why do we need anyone to bless us? The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a) provides insight here. The Rabbis imagine that God prays, just as we do. They therefore ask, as we would, “What prayer does God say?” Like good trial lawyers who never ask a question they cannot answer, the Rabbis tell us that God prays for the ability to control divine anger and approach us with mercy rather than strict justice. In other words, God prays for self-control. But apparently prayer isn’t enough, because God visits the High Priest R. Yishmael b. Elisha in the Holy of Holies and asks for a blessing. R. Yishmael has the perfect blessing for God, just what God needs and wants: “May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” Even God needs, and benefits from, a blessing. So much more so do we. We all need one another’s blessings — good wishes and expressions of love and caring, reminders of what is important, and the hope that God and the world will meet our needs and desires.

Second, blessings remind us that, in fact, we are already blessed. The trick is to be able to recognize our blessings. The Rabbis speak of hakarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, because the more we do so the happier and more satisfied we will be. Ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? Those who are content with their portion” (Pirke Avot 4:1). In other words, when we are pleased with what we have, we are rich with satisfaction. Rabbi Julian Sinclair tells a wonderful story of a rabbi whose hakarat ha-tov extended to bushes. In Rabbi Sinclair’s words:

Hakarat hatov extends to inanimate objects as well. Moses famously did not strike the Nile to catalyse the plague of blood for that would have shown a lack of gratitude to the water which had conveyed him in his ark to Pharoahs [sic] daughter. A modern-day example is of the late Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Gustman, head of Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael, who used to water the bushes in front of the yeshivah. For when fleeing Vilna, he had hidden behind some bushes and always felt a debt of gratitude to them, be they in Vilna or Jerusalem. Neither Moses nor Rabbi Gustman credited water or bushes with the will to chose to save them, but they recognised that to destroy or disregard something that once helped you is indeed a base trait.
Think for a moment: what are you grateful for? How have you been blessed, and by whom?

Third, counting our blessings leads to anava (humility). Humility is perhaps the greatest and most difficult middah (personality attribute) to cultivate, but the one that is the genesis and nexus of all middot. Ego is part of our natural make-up and, indeed, necessary for survival. We must value and appreciate ourselves. An overblown ego, however, separates us from others and from genuine happiness. It is natural to be proud of our achievements, but it helps to remember that we are all blessed with talent and potential. We didn’t earn them; they came installed with the hardware. We get credit for developing our potential and using our talents productively.

Torah doesn’t say when or how Birkat Kohanim should be conferred. The Rabbis, however, decided that it should be said at shacharit and musaf, as well as at Ne’ila, the closing service of Yom Kippur, ensuring that it is recited every day, year round. Even on Tisha B’Av it is recited at minchah. Not a day goes by that we are not blessed in some way. And perhaps not a day should go by that we do not extend, in some way, a blessing to another.

What blessing will you give someone else today?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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