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Cohan Blessing

Cohan Blessing

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Published by: icemaniceman1111 on Jun 17, 2009
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Arthur Segal Via Shamash Org on-line class service Jewish Renewal Jewish Spiritual Renewal Hilton Head Island, SC, Bluffton, SC, Savannah, GA "Live Long and Prosper" Parasha Naso is the longest in all of the Five Books of Moses, our Chumash. This is due to what at first glance looks like redundant repetition (pardon my redundancy!) of the offerings made by the heads of the tribes to the priests. Each brings the same thing of the same quality in the same quantity, and does so in the same manner…or so it appears. I'll explain later. Before the tribal leaders bring their offerings, Moses teaches Aaron and his sons how to bless the children of Israel. We have all heard these priestly blessings, which are found in Numbers 6:24 through 6:26. Let's have a look now at the words and their meanings. "May God bless you and safeguard you." This is the first of the three priestly beracoth. What does it mean to wish God's blessings upon someone? By doing so we acknowledge that all blessings come from the Almighty. Only God can assure success, abundance and good health. We insert this very prayer into our Shemoneh Esrei every day. By praying that God will bless someone and keep that person is an acceptance of the Oneness and greatness of God. This first of the three blessings pertains to material prosperity. We are asking God to keep His promise. The promise made in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 is a promise of successful crops and businesses, healthy flocks, and increased possessions. The Mishna teaches in Pirkei Avot 3:15 that where there is no flour, there is no Torah. The more prosperous we are, the more time we can spend studying Torah and sharing our wealth with others. After the priest asks God to bless us, he then asks God to safeguard us. Why? Material possessions bring with them the risk of robbery, jealousy, and possibly bodily harm. We are being taught here that physical gifts are important, but they are not the be all end all of our existence. Our survival, of course, depends upon our physical needs being met, but we need much more. We are further taught in the Midrash that the best way to garner continued blessings for our wealth is to use it for mitzvoth. The sages teach that this is the best way to thank God for His generosity and ensure continued blessings. Bringing it home to modern day life, we can interpret this blessing to mean that God wants you to be prosperous. He wants you to be wealthy! Not to impress your friends; not because "he who dies with the most toys wins." God wants you to be rich so that you have the means and the time to do His work. Surely you've heard some version of the adage: "Nobody ever asked a poor man for a job." There is a good reason for this; it requires wealth to be in a position to employ others, enabling them to sustain themselves and prosper so that they are better able to do His work. "May God illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you." In the book of Proverbs (6:23) this second blessing is written, "The commandments are a lamp and the Torah is a light." We are blessed to be able to comprehend the wisdom of the Torah and of God's gift of creation.

Having already been given wishes for prosperity, we are now able to go beyond the elementary requirements of survival, says Rabbi Sforno of sixteenth-century Rome. The second blessing is a spiritual one based on inspiration and hope from the knowledge of the Torah. The word "countenance" literally means "face" in Hebrew. God is incorporeal, and we are taught that only Moses saw God face to face. We are being blessed to have the ability to understand God's purpose for us in His universe. This is similar, according to Rabbi Raphael Hirsch, to having the ability to read one's attitudes by reading facial expressions. When we understand God we will appreciate His gifts and truly know what to do with them. This is the "light" of the Torah. The study of Torah helps us learn of Gods "face." The concept of being in God's grace is a fascinating one. There are those who believe that we Jews lost divine favor circa 35 C.E. The Midrash Sifre states that this means we wish for God to let our fellows look upon us with grace. It is written that a "person can have a host of personal attributes, but unless his fellows appreciate and understand him, his relationship with them will not be positive." The quality of being liked by others is called grace. The Or ha Chaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar of eighteenth-century Italy) says that this is a prayer asking for other nations to like and understand us. The Rambam says that this means Israel, or we as individuals, should find favor in God's eyes. "May God lift his face to you and establish peace for you." This third blessing is a wish for God's compassion, forgiveness and the granting of shalom. Rashi says that the blessing asks God to suppress his anger against us even if we have sinned. We cannot look at another while feeling anger toward them. We pray that God will always look directly at us and not turn his back toward us. In Talmud Bavli Tractate Rosh Hashanah 17B, the proselytess Bloria asks how God can show mercy to somebody undeserving. The Kohan Yose answers that God mercifully forgives sins committed against Him. He refuses to show favor to those who sin against their fellow man unless they first placate and obtain forgiveness from the victim. This is a major point where Judaism and Christianity part company. Judaism believes that we are born into God's grace and can maintain this grace only through repentance to God and to those that we have hurt. Our grace has to be continually earned. The Midrash teaches that the gates for our repentance, our Jewish Spiritual Renewal, are always open. Christianity says we are born into a state of sin, and only accepting Jesus puts us into a state of grace, which we keep regardless of our actions as long as we still believe. The last phrase of wishing us peace is how the blessing is sealed. Without peace, internally and externally, we cannot enjoy God's bounty. In the very last words of the entire Talmud (Bavli Tractate Uktin 3:12), Rabbi Shimon ben Chalefta said, "God could find no container that would hold Israel's blessings as well as peace." He quoted Psalm 29:11 in which we end our Blessing after the Meal: "God will give might to his people. God will bless his people with peace." The Or ha Chaim wrote that peace is not just harmony among people. Peace is the "balance between the needs of the body and the needs of the soul." Universally, it is the balance between the infinite Holy elements and the earthbound human, mundane elements. In traditional synagogues you will not hear the rabbi utter these words routinely. They were meant for Aaron and his priestly sect. The Temple was destroyed. The Kohan cult no longer existed and these blessings, our sages taught, cannot be pronounced until the Temple's restoration. Once a year on the High Holy Days at a "duchining" ceremony one can witness today, in some traditional synagogues, the Levites washing the feet of the Kohans, and the Kohans giving the congregation this blessing. The Kohans hold their hands up with

their fourth and fifth fingers together, their second and third fingers together, and a wide split between the third and fourth fingers and the second finger and the thumb. They then put their thumbs close together and raise their hands high while reciting these priestly blessings. This ceremony is done during the Mussaf section of the holiday service. In Israel, many traditional synagogues now do this in their everyday morning prayer service. Some rabbis have posited that this is allowed because they are living in Israel, and this will hasten the rebuilding of the Temple. In liberal synagogues the rabbi will bless his congregation each Shabbat and on holidays. I propose something more radical: On Shavuot, many of us studied the Book of Ruth. In Chapter 2, Verse 4 Boaz (Ruth's future second husband) says to his workers, "The Lord be with you." They answered him, "The Lord bless thee." Each of us can bestow on another these priestly blessings today. After all, do we not read in the Torah that we are to be a "nation of priests?" I challenge myself, and you, to not only bless each other, but to work toward the fulfillment of these blessings. We cannot only pray for God to help us prosper and to sustain us, but we can work actively as a partner with God in this effort. We can help our friends with their business endeavors. We can feed the hungry. We can visit the sick. We can do acts of ahavath chesed (loving kindness). We can pray that God safeguard us, but we must also work toward protecting each other. We can let go of coveting practices and petty jealousies. We can revel in the success of others. I have found that there are two philosophies with regard to looking at the success of others. Some of us think there is a limited amount of "pie" in this world. If you have a slice, some think of it as a slice that they cannot have. Others think the opposite. They think there is an infinite amount of pie in this world. If you have a piece; that's great. There's enough pie to go around for everyone. The first way of thinking actually denies God. Those who are petty and jealous, who feel threatened by someone else's achievements, do not believe in the Oneness and Infinity of God. If you truly believe in God, then you know that there is unlimited pie. If we all knew that, we would always be safeguarded, as there would be no jealousy or theft. We can pray to God for spirituality and grace, but we must also climb the rungs of our own spiritual ladders and be gracious to our fellows. We can bestow our love and friendship on all people. We need to remember that the Hebrew words for "speaking" and for "bumble bee" are similar; D'var and Devarah. Our words can be sweet as honey or as mean as the bee's sting. Aim for the honey. How can we even be so bold as to ask God for His grace if we cannot civilly extend it to one another? God may forgive us for our sins toward Him, but He does not forgive us for our sins toward others unless we make a sincere apology to the injured party. We can help extend grace to one another by teaching mussar (ethical behavior), which is found repeatedly in our great texts. Our lay leaders can try to behave graciously not only to each other, but to all of their constituent-congregants. We can treat our rabbis, cantors, and our teachers with the respect that they deserve. We are living in strange times where negative behaviors seem to be the norm as they filter into our homes through television shows and Web sites. Our temples and synagogues need to be places where we can teach proper person-to-person behaviors. We need to be a counterbalance to the entitlement, me only, limited pie philosophies that pervade American thought - if we go so far as to call it thought. Our sages taught long ago in the Mishna Pirkei Avot that a rich man is one who is happy with what he has (4:01). We can pray to God to look directly at us, forgive us and give us peace, but we must also do the

same for each other. We need to be honest with one another. We need to talk to each other and not at each other. We need to begin to understand each other and really communicate. I wrote of I-Thou and I-It relationships a few parashot ago. We relate to one another too often as "it" and not enough as "Thou." We are taught that it is a sin to pray to God for something that we do not need or that we will squander. Our communal prayers are continually filled with cries for shalom. When we are sinful to one another, a barrier is created not only between people, but also between God and people. There is a disruption in the balance of the universe between the Infinite Holy God and human, mundane elements. The rungs on the spiritual ladder that we are to climb to elevate ourselves from the mundane to the Holy get broken. If we truly believed in God, we would do our best to grant our fellows true peace and not machlokot (strife and petty arguments). As already mentioned, parasha Naso is the longest Torah portion because of the repetition of the tribal leaders' gifts. At a first read it looks as though the leaders, each one coming on a different day, are bringing the exact same offerings. The Midrash explains that even though the twelve offerings were identical, each alluded to the special mission of each tribe so that each was unique (Mishna Bamidbar Rabba 13:13). Today we enter our synagogues as unique individuals even though we all pay the same dues. Each of us is worthy. Each of us is important. Each of us is needed. We are all needed in the brew that makes up a congregation's life. We are all each other's "cup of tea." Each of us brings a unique flavor to the mix. Each of us is beloved by God. It would be nice if each of us were beloved by each other. As Numbers 7:01 to 7:89 shows, we are to bring into a Temple, not distract from it. In order to really understand this we need to be familiar with God's rules of the spiritual universe. Rabbi Chaim of Volozshin in his book Nefesh ha Chaim…Soul of Life explains, "God has a desire to give man all of the blessings in the world - to cause the Divine abundance to rain down on man." In order for this to occur, Rabbi Ari Kahn teaches, man must create a world that is deserving of such blessing. In Talmud Bavli Tractate Bava Metziah 30B, Rabbi Yochanan taught, "Jerusalem was destroyed because the people judged with Torah law...They judged according to the law of the Torah and never went beyond the letter of the Law." People then were no different than they are now. Everyone then stood up firmly for his "rights" to the letter of the Torah law. There was no real sense of community. People used one another for their own personal gain. They were not a people or a congregation. They were individuals and cliques. The Talmud teaches that God treated them in an identical manner. He judged them according to the letter of the law, without mercy. Jerusalem fell, and our 2,000-year Diaspora began. Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassor pointed out that the priestly blessings, while told to all of Israel, use the word "you" in the singular. He says that this should teach us that while we are all individuals, the greatest blessing is unity and peace. Rabbi Leib writes that we need to respect each other's uniqueness while remembering the common bonds that bring about unity. In Kabalistic terms the Hebrew word Ahavah (love) has the same numerical value (13) as the Hebrew word Echad (one).

If you were asked what is your greatest gift in life, how would you answer? Would you say your health, your spouse, your children, or your beach house on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina? Our greatest blessing, as we are reminded on Shavuot, is Torah. Without the understanding we get from Torah, our material goods and social relationships are worthless. If we do not know how to thank God for our physical blessings, how do we really appreciate them? We all know of those who are not happy with what they have, who continually buy new cars, new houses, new toys, yet are never satisfied. We also know of those who are never happy with their families and abandon them through divorce, only to start new families, but find no happiness there either. Without the illumination we get from Torah we will not know how to appreciate or treat our spouses, children or friends, or know how to be thankful for our material goods or health. Modern Jews have shunned blind ritual in order to do Tikun Olam repair of the world. There has been a casting off the God-to-man mitzvoth in order to concentrate on the man-to-man laws. It is said that Modern Jews will not wait for Jerusalem to have its Third Temple and have declared that synagogues are the present temples. It has been posited that the tribal distinctions of Levite and Kohan do not apply today as there is no priestly cult, and that there will be no preparation for a Temple that may never come in the future. If this is all part of Modern Jewish doctrine, then we have an even greater obligation to obey the man-to-man laws. We have an obligation to act priestly and holy as individuals. We have a greater obligation to study Torah and mussar (ethics) and walk humbly in God's path. We need to "engross ourselves in the words of Torah" and taste its sweetness. For Torah truly "is our life, and the length of our days." "May God bless you and keep you. May God show His face to you and be gracious to you. May God lift His face to you and grant you Shalom." Or as the Star Trek Vulcans - Spock, T'Pol and Tuvack - say as they raise one hand in the Kohan manner, "Live long and prosper." Shabbat Shalom: Rabbi Arthur Segal Via Shamash Org on-line class service Jewish Renewal Jewish Spiritual Renewal Hilton Head Island, SC, Bluffton, SC, Savannah, GA member: Temple Oseh Shalom

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