Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

My teacher Rabbi Wolpe writes:
“In Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, the first on the list is believing in God. The last on the list is a king not amassing great personal wealth.

We can see those two commandments, one positive and one negative, as intimately related to one another. Believing in God entails believing that one has limits. Much of Judaism reinforces this idea. When reciting the Amidah, the silent standing prayer, according to Jewish law, the regular worshipper bows at the beginning & the end of the first & last blessing. A High Priest bows at the beginning & the end of each blessing. A King must bow throughout the entire prayer (Berachot 34b).

Ego is integral to our personal character and its distortions common to our struggles. Ego pushes us to do things and even want things that higher impulses warn against. As the world recognizes the eminence of an individual – priest, prophet, sage, king, or in our day, politician, tycoon, star, athlete – the temptation to self- aggrandizement grows greater.

Acknowledging that we are human and ephemeral, that there is a God, infinitely greater than ourselves, helps induce the humility that reminds us not to overestimate our own gifts and accomplishments. The first and last mitzvah tie together to remind us – achievement is worthy; arrogance is outrageous.”

The recent survey on the status of American Jewry shows that we Jews have a real problem with belief in God. I am not surprised. God may be the least spoken of “subject” for many of us & in most synagogues. Is it any wonder then that we do not know what to think about God & we fall back on our secular educations to dismiss God as irrelevant?

This is not to say there are no religious seekers among Jews. There certainly are. It is just that the Judaism often being offered by organized Judaism is religiously anemic and is focused on everything and anything but religion. Religious study is almost nonexistent for many Jews, so when the Pew survey asks: Do you believe in God as described in the Bible? – how can a Jew answer this question — when the closest many Jews have come to our Bible may be seeing the movie.

It is not that people are not looking for a relationship with God. Many are frustrated and do not know where to go to find answers to their questions in a friendly environment. Without Jewish places to explore serious Jewish answers to our questions, we are led to search elsewhere.

In our Torah text, we learn of God’s command to the kohanim (the priests) to bless the people. (Numbers 6:22- 27) The priestly three-fold blessing may be the only remnant of the ritual from our ancient Temples of old still in practice. It takes place daily in the Shaharit (morning) service, in some communities only on Shabbat, and in many synagogues throughout the world, only on holidays.

At Temple Judea, we conclude every Shabbat service with the three-fold blessing. For many, this blessing provides a religious moment of intimacy between the worshipper and God. Apparently at some point there were those who sensed this intimacy might be lost in the manner in which this ritual was carried out. My teacher Rabbi Mordecai Silverstein writes: “The following midrash relates a discussion between God and the children of Israel over the efficacy of this ritual:

When the Holy Blessed One said to Aaron and his sons: Thus you shall bless the people of Israel’ (Numbers 6:22) Israel said before the Holy Blessed One: ‘Master of the World, you have charged the Kohanim with blessing us? We have no desire for any blessing other than Yours as we want to be blessed [directly] by Your mouth’, as it is written: ‘Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people’ (Deuteronomy.6:15) The Holy Blessed One replied to them: ‘Even though I said to the Kohanim that they should bless you, I stand with them and bless you.’ This explains why the kohanim spread forth their hands – to say the Holy Blessed One stands behind them, and so it says: ‘Gazing through the window’ (Song of Songs 2:9) – from between the shoulders of the kohanim; ‘Peering through the lattice’ (Ibid.) – from between the fingers of the kohanim. (adapted from Numbers Rabbah 11:2)

What are we to take away from this anecdotal conversation? God assigned to the kohanim the ritual blessing of God’s people. The people, however, sought greater intimacy with the Divine, requesting that God bless them directly. God, in turn, informed them, this very ritual served that purpose since the kohanim were technically only acting as a conduit for God’s blessing. In other words, the way they hold their hands and fingers represents a pathway for the divine blessing to reach the people.

What does it mean to say that the kohanim are conduits for God’s blessing? For one thing, they are not the “one blessing” – God is the “One Blessing.”

The answer to this question is a message for all those who aspire to religious leadership. Religious leaders should not act as vicarious religious conduits. They should be teaching people to appreciate God’s presence in their lives and how to use our Jewish tradition as a tool for creating a relationship with God. The people of Israel made it quite clear in this midrash what they were looking for and the recent Pew survey indicates that the work is very much before us.

B’vrachot, blessings, Rabbi Dennis