Shemini: Prayer and Glory

April 19, 2017 at 8:17 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | 2 Comments
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For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:

Because today God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)

After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:

This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2

Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith.  When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned.  Who would lead them to a new home?

In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3  Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not.  The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4  The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar.  So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?

Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries.  But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?

While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.

Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them …  (Leviticus  9:22)

The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):

May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)

After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6  The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.

Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)

What is this second blessing?  According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands!  May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”

And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:

May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us.  (Psalm 90:17) 7

Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made.  The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.

The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,

… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces.  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.


A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise.  After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true.  We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.

And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.

Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod.  This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.

I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable.  Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.

Bless someone today.  It might make a difference.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)

1  First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people.  For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.

2  Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.

3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.

4  Exodus/Shemot  35:4-29 and 36:2-7.

5  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.

6  Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002,  p. 289-290.

7  Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.

Naso: Blessing Inside and Out

May 27, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Naso | Leave a comment
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May God bless you and protect you.

May God shine its face toward you and be gracious to you.

May God lift its face toward you and grant you peace. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)

This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” moves the hearts of many Jews when it is chanted in services today. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), as God gives Moses instructions on the way the priests should bless the Israelites.  After the three lines of blessing, the Torah concludes:

They shall place My name upon the Children of Israel; and I, Myself, will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)

In other words, the priests are charged with reciting the correct formula in front of the people.  Then God, not the priests, will bless them. God’s blessing is triggered not by the benevolence of the priests, but by the people hearing the words.

The words sound particularly moving in Hebrew because they follow a pattern. The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words.  Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.

But what do the words in the Threefold Blessing mean?

I offer one possible literal translation at the beginning of this post. A more standard translation would read “His face”, but Hebrew is a gendered language; there is no separate word for “it”.  When English speakers would use the words “it” or “its”, Hebrew uses a masculine or feminine pronoun (as a prefix or suffix). While all translations from Hebrew to English refer to a house (bayit) or a hand (yad) as “it”, most translators persist in referring to God as “he”. I think this tricks some English speakers into thinking God is male. So I prefer to use “it” for everything except humans and other animals.

On the other hand, I retained the word “face” in the opening translation, even though it is an anthropomorphism. The poetic ideas of God shining its face and lifting its face deserve attention.

Ya-eir, God, its face toward you, and be gracious to you.

ya-eir (יָאֵר) = may it/he shine, may it/he illuminate.

Some commentators interpret “May God shine its face” as “May God smile”. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) handed down a tradition that the phrase means “May He show you a smiling countenance, a radiant countenance.” In English, we say people’s faces “light up” or “beam” when they express happiness. It makes sense that if God is beaming with happiness at the Israelites, God would feel inclined to be gracious and grant them favors.

Other commentators have focused on the meaning of ya-eir as “may it illuminate”, i.e. light up something so it is visible—literally or figuratively. The 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno interpreted the phrase as meaning: “May He open your eyes through the light of His countenance to see wonders from His Torah.” More generally, this part of the blessing might mean: May God enlighten you.

The third line of the Threefold blessing mentions God’s face again:

Yissa, God, its face toward you, and grant you peace.

yissa (יִשָּׂא) = may it/he lift up.

In the Hebrew Bible, lifting up your face to God means that you not ashamed or guilty. Ezra says: My God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you. (Ezra 9:6) And twice Job’s so-called comforters tell him that after he has repented for the sin they assume he committed, then he can lift up his face to God.

Rashi wrote that May God lift his countenance to you means May God suppress his anger.  This opinion is supported by the story of Cain and Abel. The Torah says that when God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis/Bereishit 4:5)

A fallen face also indicates a frown when God tells Jeremiah to reassure the northern kingdom of Israel that it is on the right track. Jeremiah is to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God. I do not hold on forever. (Jeremiah 3:12)

If a fallen face is an angry frown, then a lifted face might be a kind smile. Therefore this part of the Threefold Blessing might mean May God be kind to you.

Now we have the following translation:

May God bless you and protect you.

May God enlighten you and be gracious to you.

May God be kind to you and grant you peace.

If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then this Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to illuminate how the rules work; to give us the things we need in life graciously, in abundance; to treat us kindly regardless of what we deserve; and to arrange for us to live in peace.

However, there is plenty of evidence that our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, harmed, confused, starved, judged harshly, and/or miserable. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the universe will change.

On the other hand, if we imagine an internal God, a divine spark inside each of us, then the Threefold Blessing expresses the changes we want within ourselves. We want our deepest soul to bless us with joy and contentment; to protect us from our own undesirable impulses; to enlighten us so we grow in wisdom and understanding; to make us gracious to ourselves and to other people; to teach us kindness; and to give us peace of heart and mind.

May every one of us receive these blessings.

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