The LORD Bless You and Keep You – Reflections from Jonathan Sacks

Posted on June 5, 2008


Because I just needed to hear this myself, so I wanted to share. The Chief Rabbi’s “Covenant and Conversation” reflection this week was on the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6. A few of the poignant snippets are below and worth absorbing.

יברכך יהוה וישמרך

יאר יהוה פניו אליך ויחנך

ישא יהוה פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

THE OLDEST SURVIVING FRAGMENT OF THE BIBLE, is a 2700 year old piece of parchment housed in the Israel Museum, and contains 15 words, this blessing from Numbers 6. It comes from the era of the First Temple, built by King Solomon. It is so old that it is not written in the Hebrew alphabet as we recognise it today, which dates from the Babylonian exile, but rather in the ancient Semitic script, the first alphabet known to mankind.

Why someone wrote them down on this piece of parchment, it is impossible to say, though it is likely that it was used as a kamea – a charm of good luck or blessing. I find it intensely moving that these words, first said so long ago, still stay with us in this physical form as well as in our prayers.

THE LITERARY STRUCTURE IS PRECISE. In the original Hebrew, the first line has three words, the second, five, and the third, seven (as I have pointed out elsewhere, these prime numbers have special significance throughout the Mosaic books: three-, five- and seven-fold repetitions always signify a key-word). Equally precisely, the first has 15 (3×5) letters, the second 20 (4×5) and the third, 25 (5×5).

Grace is that quality which sees the best in others and seeks the best for others.

G-D’S [1] CREATION IS FUNDAMENTALLY GOOD. Against the idea basic to many other faith systems – which embrace poverty, asceticism or other forms of self-denial – in Judaism the world as G-d’s creation is fundamentally good. Religion is neither otherworldly nor antiworldly. It is precisely in the physical world that G-d’s blessing are to be found.

THE GREAT IRONY: MATERIAL BLESSINGS CAN SOMETIMES DULL OUR SENSITIVITIES TOWARD G-D. The great irony is that when we have most to thank G-d for, often we thank Him least. We tend to remember G-d in times of crisis rather than in eras of prosperity and peace:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your G-d for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your G-d, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery . . . You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” [2]

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF CIVILIZATIONS. In the early, pioneering years civilizations are lifted by a collective vision and energy. Then as people become affluent they begin to lose the very qualities that made earlier generations great. They become less motivated by ideals than by the pursuit of pleasure. They think less of others, more of themselves. They begin to be deaf and blind to those in need. They become, in a word, decadent. What happens to nations happens also to individuals and families. Hence the first blessing. “May the Lord protect you,” means: May He protect you from the blessing turning into a curse.

WHAT IS GRACE? The word “grace” has such strong Christian associations that we sometimes forget its centrality to Judaism. Judaism is a religion of intellect: of study, questioning, ideas, argument and the life of the mind. The historian Paul Johnson described rabbinic Judaism as an “ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.” Yet the Book of Proverbs says:

Let kindness and truth not leave you. Bind them around your throat, inscribe them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will find grace and good intellect in the eyes of the lord and man. [3]

Grace (חן) takes precedence over good intellect (שכל-טוב).

MAY HIS PRESENCE BE EVIDENT IN YOU. The second priestly blessing is: May G-d “make His face shine on you,” meaning, may His presence be evident in you. May He live a visible trace of His being on the face you show to others. How is that presence to be recognized? Not in severity, remoteness or austerity but in the gentle smile that speaks to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” That is grace.

MAKING PEACE WITH OURSELVES TO MAKE PEACE IN THE WORLD. “May the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” To make peace in the world we must be at peace with ourselves. To be at peace with ourselves we must know that we are unconditionally valued. That does not often happen. People value us for what we can give them. That is conditional value, what the sages called “love that is dependent on a cause”. G-d values us unconditionally. We are here because He wanted us to be. Our very existence testifies to His love. Unlike others, G-d never gives up on us. He rejects no one. He never loses faith, however many times we fail. When we fall, He lifts us. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.

The genius of Judaism is that it is not predicated on superhuman virtue; its ideals are surpassingly high, its psychology is realistic throughout.

SEEKING RECOGNITION. We speak of “seeking recognition.” It is a telling phrase. More than power or wealth or success or fame we long for what we believe these things will give us: standing in the eyes of others, respect, esteem, honour, worth. We can dedicate a lifetime to this search, but it is not a good one.

MAKING EYE-CONTACT WITH G-D. People do not confer respect for the right reasons. They follow politicians who pander to their worst instincts. They feel the charisma of pure power. They flatter the wealthy. They are like moths to the flame of fame. The recognition that counts is our reflection in the eyes of G-d. He loves us for what we are and what we could become. He loves the good in us, not the successful or persuasive or charismatic. He ignores the image we try to project because He knows us from within. His is the voice within us that says, “With Me, you do not have to pretend. I know you. I knew you before you were born. I know you because I made you, and I made you because I need you – or more precisely, because the world needs you. There is a task only you can do. Now, therefore, be strong and do it. You need not seek praise; you shall not be deflected by criticism; for I will be with you every step of the way. When you feel most alone, that is when I will be closest.” That is making eye-contact with G-d. It is the meaning of the third blessing: “May the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

THE INVISIBLE HAND. It was Adam Smith in his masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, who pointed out that self-interest, when properly channeled, led to the welfare of all. Smith himself sensed that there was something religious about this, and he gave it a quasi-religious name. He called it the invisible hand, which was as near as he could come to speaking about divine providence — the mysterious yet benign way in which, though each of us may be concerned about our own narrow welfare, we are part of something larger than ourselves, in ways we cannot always understand. Our separate strands are part of a larger pattern.

PRAYING IN THE PLURAL. The great Spanish poet and philosopher Judah Halevi noted that almost all our prayers are in the plural. We do not pray that G-d should give me something; we pray that he should give us something. “Bless us, O our father, all of us together.” There is a spirit of community written into the liturgy. We do not ask our G-d to listen to the prayers of individuals, but of those of the Jewish people as a whole. When Moses prayed on behalf of the people, he was answered. When he prayed for himself – to be allowed to enter the promised land – he was not. Halevi adds that there is nothing mystical in this idea. he explained it with the following analogy.

BUILD A WALL AROUND THE CITY. Imagine, he said, trying to defend your house against enemies. There are two ways of doing so. One is to build a wall around the house. The other is to combine with neighbours and build a wall around the town. The former is more expensive and offers less protection. To act with others for everyone is easier and more secure. They asked for protection, the right to live true to themselves without fear; for grace, the ability to be an agent for good in others; and peace, that fullness of being in which each of us brings our individual gifts to the common good. So, he said, with prayer: If we pray by ourselves for ourselves, then we rely on our own merits, about which we can never be certain. But when we pray together with the whole community, we combine our merits with theirs. Prayer is like a protective
wall, and praying together is more powerful and effective. We do not need superhuman piety – merely enlightened self-interest – to realize that our destinies are interconnected. When we are blessed, we are blessed together. Prayer is community made articulate, when we delete the first person singular and substitute the first person plural.

[The full text of Jonathan Sacks reflections can be found here.]

[1] Using a dash in reference to the divine is a traditional (Jewish) way of showing respect.
[2] c.f. Deuteronomy 8:11-18
[3] Proverbs 3:3-4

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