14 June 2024

"The Ultimate Blessing of Peace"

8 Sivan 5784
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

Parashat Nasso begins with the instructions for the Levite families (4:21-49), then with general purity and morality of the Israelite camp, concluding with the Nazirite (5:1-6:21).
And then comes Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel –  say to them: ‘Hashem bless you and keep you; Hashem shine His face upon you and be gracious to you; Hashem raise His face to you and grant you peace’. Thus they shall place My Name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless them” (6:22-27).

This is the Blessing with which, until today, the Kohanim – Aaron’s sons – bless the Congregations of Israel every day (in Israel; in most communities in exile, only on Festivals). This is the Blessing with which, traditionally, every Jewish father blesses his children on Friday night, at the onset of Shabbat, immediately before Kiddush.

This is a three-fold Blessing, with each line subdivided into two Blessings:
1. (i) Hashem bless you (ii) and keep you;
2. (i) Hashem shine His face upon you (ii) and be gracious to you;
3. (i) Hashem raise His face to you (ii) and grant you peace.

There is a progression here, an ever-increasing blessing:

1. (i) “Hashem bless you” – may He bless your physical property that you become wealthy (Targum Yonatan, Ibn Ezra, S’forno, Malbim); (ii) “and keep you” – having accumulated wealth and physical property, it will remain with you (ibid.).
2. (i) “Hashem shine His face upon you” – may He smile upon your spiritual endeavours, help you in your Torah-study (Targum Yonatan, Rashi, S’forno), that there be no separation between Israel and God (Ohr ha-Chayim), that He grant you that which you ask of Him, that when you request anything of Him He will regard you favourably (Ibn Ezra); (ii) “and be gracious to you” – that He will reveal His secrets to you and relate to you (Targum Yonatan), that He give you favour (Rashi ), grant your requests (Ibn Ezra), and forgive your sins (Ohr ha-Chayim).
3. (i) “Hashem raise His face to you” – for eternal life (S’forno), may Hashem turn to you favourably when you pray to Him (Targum Yonatan), overcome His anger (Rashi), not hide His face from you (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra); (ii) “and grant you peace” – throughout your borders, which implies specifically in the Land of Israel (Targum Yonatan), that you not be damaged or harassed by stones, dangerous animals, or enemies (Ibn Ezra), that you not be divided among yourselves (Ohr ha-Chayim), that you have the tranquillity of lasting peace (S’forno).

That is to say, this blessing progressively increases: it begins with the physical (property, wealth), then perpetuates this physical blessing (the wealth not be taken away). Then the second line progresses to the spiritual. Both of these apply to the individual Jew.

Then the third line progresses to the level of eternity, and finally to the national level – peace throughout our borders, peace both among ourselves and with our external neighbours.

Seeing this three-fold Blessing in Hebrew, it is instantly obvious that the words and letters themselves increase consistently – from 3 words in the first line to 5 in the second to 7 in the third, and from 15 letters in the first line to 20 in the second to 25 in the third. The very words and letters indicate the increase in blessing:

יברכך ידוד וישמרך
יאר ידוד פניו אליך ויחנך
ישא ידוד פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

It is of course significant that this Blessing concludes with Shalom, peace. As the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said, “The only vessel to hold blessings for Israel which God found is peace, as it says ‘Hashem will grant might to His nation, Hashem will bless His nation with peace’ (Psalms 29:11)” (Uktzin 3:12, the concluding words of the entire Mishnah).

We can learn from the Ohr ha-Chayim why of all blessings, peace is the vessel which contains all the others: “All the blessings mentioned in the Torah could be bestowed, yet without bringing any benefit. If, for example, the people are harassed by wars, then even though one year they can plough and sow their fields, the next year they cannot plough and harvest; one year affects the next – and the result is that the blessing has no effect. Therefore the Torah says ‘you will dwell securely in your Land’ (Leviticus 26:5) – no one will harass you, and year by year you will have these blessings” (Ohr ha-Chayim, commentary to Leviticus 26:5).

Indeed, without peace, all the other blessings, both the physical and the spiritual, become so transient as to be illusory.

As we noted above, the three lines of Birkat Kohanim increase from three words to five to seven, for a total of 15 words. The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chayim, Baghdad, 1832-1909) sees a deep metaphysical significance in the number 15, which is the crescendo of a long discussion.

The Ben Ish Chai analyses the tzitz, the head-plate of pure gold engraved with the words “Holy to Hashem” (Exodus 28:36), which the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would wear whenever carrying out his priestly duties (except for certain Yom Kippur services).

“The tzitz would surround [the Kohen Gadol’s head] from ear to ear, an allusion that the redemption will come…in the merit of the Oral Torah, which depends on the ear… And he places it on his מצח [forehead], because below the letters מצח [i.e. the letters directly following them] are the letters קטן [small], an allusion that the redemption will be in the merit of humility. And therefore it is written, ‘it [the tzitz] will face the מצנפת [turban]’ (Exodus 28:37), because above the letters מצנפת [i.e. the letters directly preceding them] are the letters עם שפל [humble nation], and as it is written, ‘You will save a poor nation’ (Psalms 18:28) – when they are a poor and humble nation, then they will merit the redemption. And an additional reason that [the Kohen Gadol] places [the tzitz] beneath the turban is an allusion to ‘and You will humiliate arrogant eyes’ (Psalms ibid.), because the mashiach will only come when arrogance will cease (see Sanhedrin 98a). This is the reason that [the Kohen Gadol] places [the tzitz] beneath the turban – the turban atones for arrogance (see Zevachim 88b). And the explanation for all this is that the Name YUD-HEH, whose numerical value is 15, the same as גאוה [arrogance], is rectified through humility – which means that the arrogant ones violate the Name YUD-HEH. And in the future time to come, in the elevated world of perfection, Hashem Himself will be elevated to the appellation יהיה (He-will-be), because the vav [in the Name of Hashem] will be elevated to a yud… And this is the reason that Birkat Kohanim contains 15 words, corresponding to the Name YUD-HEH” (Ben Ish Chai, Halachot, Parashat Tetzaveh Year 1).

By making this connexion between the Divine Name in the time of the redemption and the Birkat Kohanim, the Ben Ish Chai implies very strongly that he too agrees with the above-cited commentaries (Targum Yonatan, S’forno, Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ohr ha-Chayim), that the final phrase – “and grant you peace” – indeed refers to the Jewish nation as a whole, living on its own Land, as opposed to the first two lines which are blessings directed towards the individual Jew.

And herein we find perhaps the greatest blessing of them all. All the words in the Hebrew blessing are in the singular: יברכך, וישמרך, אליך, ויחנך – all are singular verbs. The last line too – אליך and לך are both in the singular.

This raises the question: if this line applies to the nation, then should these words not be pluralised? אליכם instead of אליך, and לכם instead of לך?

– No! Because the greatest blessing of peace is that we are unified, a single nation. This is the lesson that we derive from the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot, which we celebrated at the beginning of this week.

The Torah describes our journey to Mount Sinai: “They travelled [plural] from Rephidim, and they came [plural] to the Sinai Desert, and they encamped [plural] in the desert – and there Israel camped [singular] facing the Mountain” (Exodus 19:2).

Why the switch from plural to singular? – Because when getting ready to receive the Torah, they were “as one person with one heart” (Rashi ad. loc., following Vayikra Rabbah 9:9).

And such will be again when we will be ready for our final redemption – “as one person with one heart”. This is the ultimate blessing of peace: “Hashem raise His face to you and grant you peace”.

1 comment: