Sermon delivered June 10, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Claire’s Bat Mitzvah, like every Jewish life cycle ceremony, includes so many special moments. Perhaps none will be so meaningful, though, as that moment tomorrow, when Rabbi Bergman Vann shall lift her hands over Claire’s head, and offer her the priestly benediction, words that we read from the Torah this very week. Rabbi Bergman Vann will recite, and our Hazzan will chant, the same blessing that Rabbi Stahl offered over her when she was named and blessed, and when she was consecrated on this bimah, the same blessing that Rabbi Stahl offered upon Claire’s parents, when Susan and Jon were married, also right here, in this holy place. These are the same words that I pronounced over our new Jews-by-Choice on Wednesday evening, when they formally joined our covenant, and again tonight, in the presence of the congregation.
Three years ago, when we honored Rabbi Stahl on the occasion of his retirement as Senior Rabbi, we asked folks in the congregation to rise, to indicate the number of people whom Rabbi Stahl had blessed over the years. No doubt, each and every one of those individuals feels specially bonded to their Rabbi because he was the one who blessed them at those sacred ritual moments of their lives.
Of course, as Rabbi Stahl would affirm with humility, he is not truly the one who blessed all these people. As we read from the Torah tonight, even Aaron was merely the conduit. The purpose of the blessing is to link the people to God’s Name, not that of the priest – or, in our case, the Rabbi. God is the Source of the blessing.
We hear this benediction so frequently. I doubt that most of us concentrate on the meaning of its words. We are overwhelmed by the symbolic power of the moment. We are bound to God in blessing, with verses from the Torah that have been recited over us and our loved ones, at sacred moments, for as long as we can remember. We are connected to our Jewish people, across continents and millennia, as we receive the same benediction that has been recited since Sinai.
What do the words mean? At first blush, these three lines seem repetitious. In each of the three lines, the second word is Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay, the sacred four-lettered ineffable name of God, which we pronounce Adonai. The point is driven home: God is the One who blesses us.
Each line also contains two verbs, for a total of six. We ask God to bless, guard, shine, be gracious, lift up, and grant us peace. The verbs come in such rapid succession; we are tempted to dismiss their individual meanings and consider them basically as synonyms, a six-times repeated hope that God will be good to us.
Our Rabbis, though, tell us that the blessing is not redundant. With your permission, I would like to share with you tonight my own little Midrash, a story, based to some degree on traditional sources, to explain the words of the Priestly Benediction, and how they came to be.
Everyone knows that Moses was the Jewish people’s Rabbi in the desert, and that Aaron was the Priest. As Rabbi, Moses imparted Torah to the people, and even taught Aaron and his sons the details of their priestly duties. Few people are aware, though, that the Children of Israel also had a Hazzan during their years of wilderness wanderings. Miriam was a magnificent musician, both as a singer and instrumentalist. Like any good Cantor, Miriam occasionally would critique the Rabbi’s sermons. When Moses was speaking, though, he was most often delivering the words of God. Miriam was undeterred. She had hutzpah. She would offer constructive criticism, even of God’s own words. In this case, her evaluation rose to the level that she might deserve credit as a co-author of the Priestly Benediction itself.
It started like this: God said to Moses: “Command Aaron and his sons to bless the Children of Israel: Yivarechecha Adonai, ‘May God bless you.’”
Miriam quickly objected. “That sounds nice, but I’m worried that some people might get the wrong idea.” In fact, she was right. Ancient and Medieval Rabbis interpret this first phrase of the benediction to mean, “May your property increase.” It sounds too much like one of the prayers in the daily worship service, Bareich Aleinu Hashanah, in which we beseech God to give us a good harvest. “Surely,” Miriam says, “material reward is nice, but wealth can not be God’s greatest blessing.”
Moses saw her point, and brought it to God. The Eternal considered the matter, and decided to add another verb to that first sentence: V’yishmerecha, “and may God keep you.” Moses interpreted this particular word to be a request that God grant good health to the person being blessed. With wealth and health, what more can a person need?
Miriam agreed that the blessing had gotten better, but she was not satisfied. She reminded Moses of how God had created the world, giving human beings free will and permitting viruses and bacteria and the like to do their thing. Therefore, she said, “God will not always be able to deliver on this blessing of wealth and health. Words of comfort will be needed for those who suffer poverty, financial reversal, poor health, the death of a loved one.”
Moses, being rather antiquated in his ways, didn’t usually like to be corrected by a woman, let alone the Hazzan, and certainly not by his big sister, but what could he say? Miriam was right. Moses took Miriam’s argument back to God, who responded: Ya’eir Adonai panav eleicha, “May God’s light shine upon you.” In our moments of darkness, we all need to know that God cares for us, that God’s light can radiate through even the thickest blackness.
Miriam was deeply moved, so moved, in fact, that she wanted more. Miriam told Moses that God had indeed offered the most beautiful blessing for the living, but human beings also need hope in death. We want to know that God keeps faith with our loved ones, sleeping in the dust. We seek confidence that God will be with each of us, in death as in life.
God, most eager to sustain the faith of Israel in every circumstance, heard Miriam’s plea directly this time, and responded directly to her, adding a second verb to the blessing’s second line, Vihuneka, “And may God be gracious to you.” Grace is a word that Jews don’t often use, but that’s a mistake. Grace is a terribly important theological concept, and one that is deeply rooted in Judaism. Grace means that, even though we are not always worthy, God loves us, unconditionally and forever. This blessing offers us faith that whatever awaits us beyond the end of our lives is not bad. Life after death can only be good, for the one gracious God reigns supreme there.
By this point, even Miriam was very nearly satisfied. Upon reflection, though, she realized that something was missing. The blessing did not yet reveal the purpose of human life, a mission for the Jewish people and all humanity.
So God said, Yissa Adonai panav eleicha, “May God’s presence lift you up.” At first, Miriam was puzzled by this passage, as she considered what God might mean by wanting us to be “lifted up.” Moses, her Rabbi, helped her to see that human beings are elevated when we perform the mitzvot, when we discharge our religious obligations, when we make the world a better place. The blessing lifts us to a higher purpose, tikkun olam, building a perfect future.
Miriam was ready to get to work. For one thing, she would need to compose, orchestrate, and rehearse music to these words of blessing. She also didn’t want to waste any more time before the people would receive the blessing, so that they could be moved to get down to the business of the mitzvot themselves. She paused for a moment, though, and acknowledged that, all too often, our good intentions, even our good work, come to naught. We may feel frustrated in our attempts to repair a world that so often seems all too broken.
God was a step ahead of her, already dictating the last words of the blessing to Moses: V’yasem l’cha shalom, “May God grant you peace.” God hereby promises that, some day, perhaps in the very distant future, God and humanity together will achieve that better world we seek, that time of perfect shalom, peace for all the universe.
Then, and only then, having successfully coaxed God into a benediction truly worthy of the immortality it would achieve, did Miriam compose and chant the most magnificent melody, with the words spoken by God to Moses, who taught them to Aaron.
And the people responded: Ken yehi ratzon, “May that be God’s will.”
And we all say: Amen.