This week’s Torah portion is Naso from the book of Numbers. Much of this portion and the previous portions in Leviticus reflect a priestly culture. If you need to say thank you to God, bring an animal to the priest to sacrifice. If you have a problem go to the priest. In fact this week’s portion details the strange sotah ritual in which a husband who suspects his wife of adultery brings her to the priest and has her drink a magic potion in order to determine her guilt or innocence. Leaving aside the details of the ritual, the context clearly reflects the ultimate power and authority of the priest.
Everything goes through the priest, even of course the priestly blessing. This blessing is one of the most familiar blessings in the Torah, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you; may you always find God’s presence and be blessed with peace.”
With the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Judaism shifted away from this priestly culture to a democratic culture. We of course retained vestiges of the priestly, Temple culture. We pray for the restoration of the sacrificial cult, at least in traditional synagogues. We offer the priestly blessing on holidays (and in Israel everyday). We call forward those who are descended from the kohanim, the priests, to recite this blessing for their congregation. In our congregation we do so on the High Holidays.
One of the radical moves of the rabbis, however, was to remove rank by birth. Leadership was attained through learning. Prayer and blessing, learning and leadership is accessible to all. This is the essence of the Shavuot message. This is the essence of the holiday we just celebrated. Torah was given to all! It was not given to a privileged few. The Torah was given to each and everyone of us.
The rabbi does not serve as an intermediary. The rabbi’s blessing does not make it official. You can approach God yourselves. Drawing near to God does not require a special place or a special person. You can bless yourselves. My favorite blessing is the priestly blessing said by parents for children on Shabbat. My greatest desire is to empower everyone to take charge of their own Jewish lives and to say this blessing themselves.
Despite this I recognize that there are times when we want and need someone else to say a blessing for us. There is the comfort in the familiar voice, that is not our own. I understand this. The rabbi who buried my grandparents also officiated at my wedding. Hearing the same voice intone the blessings of our tradition brings a comfort that I could not myself bring to those moments. There is a continuity in the voice. There is a music in his blessing.
It is not that he is the only person who can say it. It is instead that his voice is the connecting thread spanning the milestones of my life. That is of course what it means to belong to a community. When belonging to a congregation each milestone is threaded together. They are not some discreet ceremonies presided over by some officiant. The blessing of the rabbi is received and given meaning in the context of community. He might very well be the weaver, but the congregation is the tapestry. I relish the privilege of offering the priestly blessing at milestone occasions. It binds us together.
I also wish that it was not only reserved for my lips. I wish that each of us would utter these words on any number of occasions. I wish that parents would bless their children and that spouses would bless each other. I wish that people would not feel as if they have to wait for me to recite the motzi blessing, but that these words would naturally roll off their tongues as well.
I will continue to count it a privilege to recite the priestly blessing at momentous occasions. I will also continue to teach that each and everyone of us can say blessings and have our own direct, connection to God.