Peeking Through the Lattice

(Originally posted on May 31, 2017)

Parashat Naso 5777

Rabbi Meir Sendor

The spirit of the Land of Israel is direct. It’s not just the bright sun in a clear blue sky – you find that all over the Mediterranean and Middle East in the dry season. It’s more the temperament of the Land and its people. Other cultures practice indirectness, politely or warily evasive, veiled. Here talk is straight, feelings expressed, spirit unfiltered.

It’s reflected in prayer, too. One of the bracing aspects of tefillah in Israel is full Nesiyat Kapayim – Kohanim raising their hands and saying Birkat Kohanim every Shacharit, every day, not just on Yom Tov as practiced in Ashkenazi kehillot in the Diaspora. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 16th century Ashkenazi halakhic authority, explains that in the Diaspora during the work week people are anxious about their livelihoods and are not in a state of simchah, of spiritual joy that is required for Birkat Kohanim, and this anxiety even carries over to Shabbat. Only on Yom Tov, and only at its climatic Mussaf prayer, just before Kiddush (!) is that joy attained (Darkhei Moshe, O.H 128). But the minhag Sefarad and Edot ha-Mizrach is to practice Nesiyat Kapayim every day. This is the minhag most prevalent in Israel, and it has spread to most Ashkenazi kehillot as well. As it happens, the Beit Knesset Ari ha-Ashkenazi and its Beit Midrash in the center of the Old City of Tzfat follow a different pattern: no Birkat Kohanim during the work week, only on Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh Mussaf, and Yom Tov. This is the original Ashkenazi custom throughout the Galil, and Rabbi Hayyim Vital in Sha’ar ha-Kavvanot seems to justify it when he notes that the level of consciousness attained during the repetition of the Amidah in weekday Shacharit is not quite as high as on Shabbat day.

What’s bracing about Birkat Kohanim, though, is not just the daily ritual. It’s the berakhot themselves and the way they are conveyed, and what they reflect about Torah. Three berakhot:

במדבר פרק ו

כד) יברכך יקוק וישמרך: ס

כה) יאר יקוק פניו אליך ויחנך: ס

כו) ישא יקוק פניו אליך וישם לך שלום: ס

God bless you and protect you.

God shine His Face to you and grace you.

God lift His Face to you and grant you peace.

There is something raw and direct about these blessings, something that escapes theological packaging. The blessing, protecting, shining, gracing, lifting and granting is not being sought from a God of systematic philosophers or systematic mystics, not from any conceptualized deity. This is raw and direct relationship we are called to. We’re calling for God, not an idea of God. Even the way the blessings are conveyed, by Kohanim, hands raised, reciting the words one by one as prompted by the Shaliach Tzibbur, emphasizes that these words come from beyond them, effacing the Kohanim in the direct Face of God. My father-in-law, a Kohen, has spoken of having extraordinary, transcendent experiences speaking these blessings. God peeks through the lattice, as it says in Song of Songs (2:9).

The aspect of God appealed to in these blessings is Face. It’s a metaphor and more. Of the human face Emmanuel Levinas says:

The face is present in its refusal to be contained… The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us… The idea of infinity, the infinitely more contained in the less, is concretely produced in the form of a relation with the face… the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised… (Totality and Infinity, 194-98)

Levinas’ point is that the human face expresses the endless and uncontainable presence of the other person. In healthy relationship we don’t reduce the other person to an idea or representation or concept. We just relate to the open, infinite reality of their presence, most eloquently expressed in their face. As Levinas says elsewhere: “One looks at a look (Difficult Freedom, 8).” In the face of the other we sense their consciousness and life reflected in real mystery, like us and not us, meeting each other in mutual attention. Every human face is a kind of metaphor, moving us beyond the physical traces of the person to their transcendent conscious presence. In the appeal to the Face of God, the blessings of the Kohanim invoke a metaphor of a metaphor, projecting us towards the infinite reality of God beyond any ideas or concepts. As it says in Tehillim:

תהלים פרק צד

(ט) הנטע אזן הלא ישמע אם יצר עין הלא יביט:

He Who planted the ear, can He not hear? If He formed the eye can He not see?

In appealing to God to shine His Face and lift His Face to us, we appeal for His full, real attention, attentive beyond any attentiveness we can imagine. The blessing is God’s personal, attentive care for us.

Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of the Torah by Yonatan ben Uziel that weaves in commentary through paraphrase, expounds:

תרגום יונתן במדבר פרק ו

כד) יברכינך יי בכל עסקך ויטרינך מן לילי ומזייעי ובני טיהררי ובני צפרירי ומזיקי וטלוי:

כה) ינהר יי סבר אפוי לך במעסקך באורייתא ויגלי לך טמירן וייחוס עלך:

כו) יסבר יי סבר אפוי לך בצלותך וישוי עלך שלם בכל תחומך:

God bless you in all your business dealings and protect you from beings who cause harm by night and by day.

God shine the favor of His Face upon your engagement in Torah and reveal to you hidden things and have mercy upon you.

God give you the favor of His Face in your prayer and grant you peace in all your boundaries.

According to Yonatan ben Uziel, these three blessings deepen and expand beyond each other. We are blessed first in personal livelihood, then in spiritual development through Torah and prayer, and finally with peace in all reaches of our lives.

It’s the real, personal relationship with God as a basis for expanding engagement in the world, as expressed in Birkat Kohanim, that is the message and purpose of Maimonides’ great work the Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides might seem like the ultimate systematic philosopher, but a careful reading reveals that his sense of God transcends mere systematics. He trains us to think in truth and reality. He guides us towards continual awareness of God that earns God’s reciprocal attention:

ספר מורה הנבוכים חלק ג פרק נב

וכמו שאנחנו השגנוהו באור ההוא אשר השפיע עלינו, כאמרו באורך נראה אור, כן באור ההוא בעצמו הוא משקיף עלינו, ובעבורו הוא תמיד עמנו משקיף ורואה,

Just as we grasp Him through that light that He causes to flow upon us, as it says “in Your light we see light (Ps. 36:10),” so in that light itself He gazes upon us, and on account of this He is continually with us, gazing and seeing.

Light here, as in Birkat Kohanim, is a metaphor for consciousness. In Maimonides’ thought, human consciousness is an emanation of divine consciousness, and when we are aware of God, God’s eternal awareness meets our own in one continuum: we look at a divine look. With this awareness of God, according to Maimonides, we are actually now ready to begin, to begin to live a life of Torah and Mitzvot in truth. At the very end of his work he cites the verse from Jeremiah:

Let him that glories glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises love, judgment and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord (Jer. 9: 23).

Maimonides expounds the purpose of the verse, the purpose of his monumental work, the purpose of Torah life:

Thus the end that he sets forth in this verse may be stated as follows: It is clear that the perfection of man that may truly be gloried in is in the one acquired by him who has achieved, in a measure corresponding to his capacity, apprehension of Him, may He be exalted, and who knows His providence extending over His creatures as manifested in the act of bringing them into being and in their governance as it is. The way of life of such an individual, after he has achieved this apprehension, will always have in view love, righteousness and judgment, through assimilation to His actions, may He be exalted (3:54).

Our direct relationship with God in truth and reality moves us to act as extensions of God’s own love, justice and righteous in the world. In other words, we are now ready to lead a Torah life in truth.

It’s this reality of our relationship with God that Shavuot celebrates. According to Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, it’s an experience not limited to the one historical event at Sinai, but is continually accessible:

שמעתי אומרים בשם הבעל שם טוב זללה”ה דאם זוכים ישראל שמתקדשים ומטהרים עצמם בתורתו ובמצוותיו, שומעין תמיד קול ה’ מדבר, כמו במעמד הר סיני, עד כאן שמעתי ודברי פי חכם חן: (כתר תורה פרשת יתרו)

I heard them say in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, that if Israel merits to sanctify and purify themselves with His Torah and mitzvot, they can constantly hear the voice of HaShem speaking, like at the convocation at Mount Sinai…

May we all experience the blessings of real relationship with HaShem every day, continually, granting wholeness and peace to us all.
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