Friday, June 23, 2023

You Can't Say You Can't Play


The Punishment of the Rebels, Detail of a fresco, Sandro Boticelli, 1481 - 1482

We all carry the nicks and scratches of childhood.

I vividly remember an incident in the third grade. After a spat, two classmates ignored me all through recess. As we were walking back into school, one of them pointed to me and said, “We aren’t talking to Chaim; he’s not normal, you know. He doesn’t have a father, and anyone who doesn’t have a father must be crazy.” The remark really hurt; being an orphan was something I was terribly self-conscious about. The cruel schoolyard teasing poured salt into an open wound, and this insulting rejection made me feel profoundly lonely.

No one likes being excluded. To have others judge you as undesirable is extremely painful. And while exclusion is challenging for individuals, social divisions are toxic for communities.


Korach is the paradigm of the community divider. The Talmud says, “Anyone who perpetuates a quarrel violates a prohibition, as it is stated: “And he should not be like Korach and his assembly”; the importance of unity is derived from the negative example of Korach.


To fully understand this imperative, one must first consider how Korach’s quarrel started. The narrative begins with the vague words "and Korach took"; but what exactly Korach took is unclear. Perhaps, as the Midrash and the Netziv suggest, he took the hearts of his followers through persuasion. The Ramban sees it as referring to Korach taking a particular opinion; it is a reference to the inner workings of Korach's mind, when he took the decision to mount a battle against Moses. Rashi offers a very different view. He explains that the phrase means that Korach "took himself to one side" to separate from the rest of the community. Korach is creating social distance even before he comes with his complaint. Rabbi Yoseph Bechor Shor adds that the Hebrew letters for Korach are the same letters as the word for distant; the root of Korach’s rebellion is when one man decides to stand a distance from the community.


While this debate between Rashi and the Ramban is about the interpretation of one word, it offers as well an insight into the genesis of disputes, an issue that is frequently discussed by contemporary political scientists. Are the social divisions of polarization simply a product of intense disagreement, or does polarization itself begin with social distance, which then fosters disagreement? The Ramban focuses on the intellectual aspects of a community quarrel: two sides have conflicting views (and interests,) and for that reason are in conflict. Rashi offers a different account. Before Korach mounts his insurrection, he first and foremost separates himself, and stands alienated from the rest of the community. He's no longer part of what they're doing. Only then does the quarrel begin.


Rashi reminds us that polarization is often a product of social divisions and not the other way around. Local communities frequently forge strong individual bonds, and thereby avoid polarization despite political disagreements. Polarization arises when the conversation becomes global, and strangers, inflamed by TV talking heads, debate each other on Twitter; then it contaminates every community, no matter how tight-knit.


In short, distance fosters dispute and division. Similarly, small schools are less likely to form cliques than large ones; the intimacy of constantly being together with other students prevents exclusion.


The importance of community is critical in Jewish thought. The Talmud (Keritot 6b) says that any public fast day, (such as Yom Kippur,) that does not include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast day. The entirety of the community needs to come together as one, even if some have acted improperly and imperfectly. No person should be left behind.


This is easier said than done. Large synagogues can sometimes feel like train stations; everybody boards at the same time and take their seat, but outside of friends, have no interest in anyone around them. Gary Rosenblatt relates how a friend told him that when he was sitting shiva, he couldn’t identify someone who visited the shiva house several times. "He looked familiar but I couldn't place him….I finally asked him who he was and he said, 'I'm the guy who's been sitting in your row in shul on Shabbat for the last six years."


That’s what it’s like praying in a train station. You don’t know the other commuters. You can sit far apart, even while sitting in the very same row. And in that distance, exclusion emerges.


The most worrisome impact of these social distances is how they impact our kids. Even if the school mandates it, students will refuse to show up at the Bar Mitzvah of someone who isn’t part of their clique; they’ll simply mail in the reply card, and then claim to be sick that day. The empty seats at the Bar Mitzvah lunch speak of an ugly social divide. Birthday parties will exclude some of the children in a class; parents will thoughtlessly push aside the kids they think “don’t belong.”


I have thought for a long time about how to address this issue. A quick review of Pirkei Avot makes it clear that exclusion is against fundamental Jewish values. Pirkei Avot teaches the importance of loving all people (6:6), greeting others warmly (1:15), bringing people together (1:12), carrying the burden of others (6:6), and not separating from the community (2:4). It should be easy to preach against exclusion.


But I had to pause for a moment. If we are honest, we need to accept that it may be instinctual to exclude. The teacher and researcher Vivian Gussin Paley, in her book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, describes an experiment in her Kindergarten classroom. She explains that she began to lose patience with the voices of exclusion in her classroom. So she put up a sign that said: You can't say you can't play. As she describes it: “I announced the new social order and, from the start, it is greeted with disbelief. Only four out of 25 in my kindergarten class find the idea appealing, and they are the children most often rejected.” There is enormous resistance in Paley’s classroom.


One child said it straight: “It will be fairer, but how are we going to have any fun?” This is not just how a kindergartener thinks; adults consider what is exclusive as being far more desirable. But exclusivity often begins by excluding others; one needs a bouncer to make any gathering truly unique. The allure of exclusivity is that it separates the elite from the ordinary; and there is no greater balm for a fragile ego than to imagine that one is something other than ordinary. (Yes, excluders are often quite insecure.) Exclusion is part of a quest to feel special; and doesn’t everyone want to feel special? If we are honest, we will recognize that exclusion is instinctive.


But there is more to humanity than instinct; and even these young children in Paley’s classroom were able to listen to the better angels of their nature. She explains that after a short while, inclusion became the norm in her classroom; the new culture had a powerful effect on every child. They recognized it was the right way to do things and eventually embraced You can't say you can't play.


But for many children, it took an effort to be inclusive. In a later interview, Paley talked about Lisa, the kindergartener who at the time offered the most strenuous opposition to the You can't say you can't play rule. Lisa eventually understood how important it was. But as Paley explained: “All the years later, whenever Lisa…met me in the hallway, she would always stop and ask me how is the rule doing, and give me an example of something she had done that showed she was still trying to follow the rule. The last time I met her was in the grocery store with her mother, and she said, "Mrs. Paley, it's still pretty hard for me, but I know I can do it, and I always try." And her mother nodded, and said, "She really does, you know."


Yes, inclusion is possible if we really try. And try we must, because it changes who we are. Life is diminished when lived in a tiny corner. To be clustered into a tiny clique of the like-minded impoverishes the soul; it is like living in black and white, unable to appreciate the true color of the world around us. More significantly, separating into little social factions weakens our sense of community; and that hurts our synagogues and schools.


Above all it is wrong. To take yourself to one side and create a distance between yourself and others is hurtful. The pain of the child who gets left out is very real, and I can personally attest to that. The echoes of exclusion linger, even decades later.


Perhaps exclusion is an inborn tendency. But even so, there is no question that all of us can do better. Kindergartners can learn the rule You can't say you can't play; so why can’t their parents?

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Power of Jewish Chutzpah


Hagana Ship "Exodus 1947" Off the Coast of Israel, Lazar Dunner, 1947

There is a tale told about the small Jewish community in Poland that lived in the village of a local nobleman, or Poritz. One day, the Poritz adopted a puppy, and grew extremely attached to his new dog. The Poritz’ priest and confessor, who was virulently anti-semitic, saw this as an opportunity. He convinced the simple-minded Poritz of a bizarre slander: the Jews know how to teach dogs how to talk, but were refusing to teach the Poritz's puppy because they hated him.


The leaders of the local Jewish community were summoned to the Poritz's palace and given an ultimatum: either they teach the puppy how to talk, or they must leave town. They pleaded repeatedly with the Poritz, but the Poritz refused to change his mind; he gave them a final week to decide what they wanted to do.


At the end of the week, the Jewish community gathered together one final time. In desperation, the leader of the community called out to the crowd: "Can anyone here help?" In the back of the room a humble tailor raised his hand and said: "Let me go speak to the Poritz." With no other alternatives, they sent in the tailor.


About an hour later, the tailor walked out of the palace along with the Poritz's dog. He announced proudly to the community that they have nothing more to worry about and can stay right where they are.


The leaders of the community were stunned; they ran over to the tailor to find out what he did, and why he was walking the dog.


The tailor explained that he told the Poritz that indeed, the Jews can teach dogs how to speak. However, the process is very complicated and time intensive; after all, even a human child takes a few years to learn how to speak. The tailor told the Poritz that if he allows him to take the puppy and train it non-stop for 6 years, it will learn how to speak.


The leaders were horrified. How could the tailor tell the Poritz this absurd lie? What will happen in 6 years' time?


The tailor smiled and said: "What will happen? In the next 6 years, I could die, the Poritz could die, and the dog could die. Why are you worried about that now?"


This is a classic story of Jewish chutzpah; it flouts the rules, mocks convention, and ignores risk, all while driven by desperation. After centuries of dispersion and displacement, this trait of chutzpah has developed into an art form.


Chutzpah plays a central role in the narrative of Parshat Shelach. The spies, who are sent to check on the promised land, offer a negative report. The people, hearing this, turn against Moses and God and organize a return to Egypt. God then appears, and condemns the entire generation to wander for 40 years in the desert and die there.


Immediately, regret sets in. “Then Moses told these words to all the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised, for we have sinned!” (Numbers 14:39-40.) Moses warns this group of would-be pioneers not to defy God, for it will not succeed. Even so, they stubbornly ignore Moses and press forward, and are killed by the Canaanites and Amalekites in battle.


An unusual Hebrew word is employed to describe their decision to ascend the mountain: “va’yaapilu.” (It actually defines this episode, and the people who ascended the mountain are referred to in the Talmud as the “ma’apilim.”) This word is translated by Rashi as “insolence,” which means the verse is saying: “They defiantly ascended.” The ma’apilim are the role models of chutzpah, ignoring Moses and God while taking destiny into their own hands.


But the question remains as to why God rejected the ma’apilim in the first place. By expressing a willingness to go into battle, aren’t the ma’apilim repenting for the sin of the spies' cowardice? Why doesn’t God support their plan to enter the land?


Two perspectives arise in the commentaries. Some, like Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, see the ma’apilim as spiritual failures, and that they are being punished for defying God’s command. They should not have invaded the land on their own initiative; the very failure of the ma’apilim is their chutzpah


But others take a very different view. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin explains that the ma’apilim were misguided idealists who wanted to repent for the sin of the spies and were desperate to enter the land. They even accepted the inevitability of losing in battle. What they hoped for was to be taken by the Canaanites as captives, and brought to live in Israel. (And even if they would be killed in battle, they would at least have their bodies buried in Israel.) The ma’apilim were good people who were determined to make their way to the Promised Land, even if it cost them their freedom or their lives. They only failed because they misapprehended what God wanted of them.


In the last century, the narrative of the ma’apilim has taken on new meaning. For anti-Zionists like the Munkaczer Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, the lesson is simple: It is wrong to ascend to Israel without divine assent. He sees this text as a prophetic prediction, and connects this passage to the 1929 Arab riots, which he blames on a march by young Zionists to the Western Wall.


Within the Zionist movement, the ma’apilim were role models. In 1919, Levin Kipnes wrote the “ma’apilim song,” which, in contrast to the biblical text, urges the Jews of his time to “go up, go up; to the top of the mountain, go up.”


Perhaps due to the popularity of this song, the term ma'apilim was used to describe the over 100,000 Jews who immigrated to British-controlled Palestine. The Peel Commission of 1937 limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to 12,000 people a year. This restriction occurred precisely at the time that Jews most desperately needed a safe haven. As Chaim Weizmann put it, for the millions of Jews then left in Europe at the time, "The world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter."


Without any real choice, Zionist organizations ramped up illegal immigration in defiance of the authorities. These were modern-day ma’apilim, who with courage and chutzpah ascended to their homeland.


They took on immense risks. On February 24, 1942, the Struma, a ship sailing from Romania with 800 Jewish refugees, was torpedoed in the Black Sea by a Soviet submarine. There was only one survivor.


Even those who managed to get to mandatory Palestine often ended up in jail. Some were imprisoned in Atlit, south of Haifa, or sent to Cyprus; 1600 refugees were brought to Mauritius where they spent nearly 5 years. But against all odds, nearly 100,000 ma’apilim made their way from Europe to the future State of Israel.


One particularly daring episode inspired the Leon Uris novel (and later movie) Exodus. On July 11th, 1947, the steamship President Warfield set sail to Mandatory Palestine from France. On this ship built for 800 people were nearly 4,500 Holocaust survivors. As it neared the coast it was met by 6 British warships. With its true identity no longer a secret, the crew unfurled a flag saying: “Haganah Ship - Exodus 1947.” The British Navy boarded the ship, and in the battle that ensued, two members of the crew and one of the passengers were killed.


In order to deter future illegal immigration, Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Minister, was determined to send these refugees back to Europe. The very next day the passengers were reboarded on three smaller ships and sent to France.


When they reached France, the refugees were promised citizenship and financial support if they would leave the boats. But they refused, and the boats sat in port. After languishing for three weeks in the summer heat, Bevin sent the boats to Hamburg in the British military zone of Germany. Upon arriving there, British soldiers beat and bullied the survivors until they left the ship.


Bevin’s response backfired dramatically. The world was shocked by the spectacle of Holocaust survivors being brutally forced to return to Germany, and moved by the enduring courage of the survivors. This was a turning point that won many over to the Zionist cause just a short few months before the United Nations vote on establishing a Jewish State.


These modern-day ma’apilim were successful.


However, the contemporary usage of the word ma’apilim is unsettling; how can the biblical ma’apilim be considered role models? Rabbi Asher Weiss, in his commentary on this parsha, tells how he had a teacher in Yeshiva that forbade his students from singing Kipnes’ ma’apilim song.


But later, Rabbi Weiss took another view. He quotes Rav Zadok of Lublin, (Tzidkat Hatzaddik 46) who offers a fascinating exegesis of this biblical passage. When Moses urges the ma’apilim not to go into battle, he says: “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? For this will not succeed.” Rav Zadok writes that the implication of the verse is: “This (time it will not succeed)...but another time it will.”


This is virtually a prophetic statement; Rav Tzadok, who died in 1900, was predicting acts of heroism that would happen decades after his death.


But Rav Zadok explains why he offers this interpretation. What the ma’apilim did was a supreme act of chutzpah, grabbing hold of leadership on their own and not waiting for Moses or God. Perhaps this chutzpah was improper in the desert, while the Jews stood under God’s divine presence. But the Talmud says chutzpah will be necessary in the times of the Messiah. During a godless time of conflict and confusion, no one would be sending out invitations to redemption. It would take chutzpah to get things done; and then the world would need the spirit of the ma’apilim to return.


And that is exactly what happened.


After the British forced the passengers of the Exodus 1947 off their boats in Hamburg, they were taken to two Displaced Person camps. Upon registration, when asked their country of origin, all the survivors responded "Palestine". Soon enough, they made new plans. Within a year, nearly every passenger on the Exodus 1947 found their way to the newly created State of Israel.


This is exactly what Jewish chutzpah is all about: a willingness to pursue one’s destiny, no matter what everyone else says; and the ma’apilim had plenty of chutzpah. They were going to go home, no matter what.


I imagine if they had to, they would have found a way to teach a dog to talk.

Friday, June 09, 2023

At the Heart of Complicated Legacy


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Itzhak Stern (left) had not seen Oskar Schindler for four years when he met him again in Herbert Steinhouse's Paris office. Both men were still trying to get out of Europe, 1949

Oskar Schindler is an inconvenient hero. Without question, what he did during the Holocaust was exceptional; he risked his own life, time and time again, to save over 1,300 Jews. But Schindler was no saint. He spied for Abwehr, the counterintelligence arm of the German military in Czechoslovakia, and played a critical role in helping the Nazis take over that country. He was a hard-drinking man who died of liver disease, a womanizer who neglected his wife, and after the war, he would constantly make financial demands of those he saved. Schindler remains an enigma, an exceptional hero at one period of his life who lived very differently for the rest of it.


Complicated legacies are difficult to disentangle. A figure like Paul Gauguin, who abandoned his family to pursue his artistic aspirations, still challenges those who evaluate his biography: Do his cultural contributions mitigate his moral failures? While art historians and even philosophers might be willing to overlook his flaws, his family would undoubtedly have a very different perspective.


The Talmud grapples with this question when discussing the life of Elisha ben Avuyah, who, embittered by Roman persecution, abandoned Judaism. He is called Acher, the “other one,” because the Rabbis don’t want to pronounce his name; he is seen as a traitor who abandoned the Jews in their time of need. The Talmud declares that Acher can never repent and is banished from the world to come.


Yet Elisha ben Avuyah’s devoted disciple, Rabbi Meir, prays for him to be brought to heaven; Rabbi Meir cannot bear to see a beloved teacher languish in hell. Acher is at once a despised heretic and a beloved teacher, and his legacy remains a matter of controversy.


And this goes to the crux of the matter: how complicated legacies are disentangled depends on who is looking at them. Children have a unique relationship with their parents, and both villains and heroes are seen in a very different light by their own families. (Jay Nordlinger wrote a book about the children of brutal dictators, Children of Monsters, where he explores the very different ways they see their own fathers’ legacies.)


On the other hand, how we see historical figures is in many ways a look in the mirror. Evaluations of them often vary, depending on one’s political viewpoint, and frequently change with the times. There are ample examples of revisionism, where historical assessments are modified to better fit with contemporary attitudes.


The case of the “generation of the desert” offers a lesson on how difficult it is to judge a complicated legacy. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that the Jews “tested” God ten times during the 40 years in the desert; it is a time of complaints, cowardice, and betrayal. They build an idol when Moses is slow to return from Mount Sinai, they rebel against Moses' leadership during the episode of the spies and do so again at the direction of Korach.


Throughout the Book of Numbers, the Jews complain and complain again. Some of the complaints are readily understandable, such as incidents when they don't have water or food, or when they face a large army. Some of the complaints, like one in this week's Torah reading, are unreasonable; instead of being appreciative of their freedom, they begin to hound Moshe for meat.


The Hebrew word used to describe their complaining, “kimitonanim” (Numbers 11:1) elicits multiple negative interpretations among the commentaries. To Ramban, this word reflects bitterness, the broken soul of worried ex-slaves. However, Seforno sees the complainers as insincere. It is “as if” they were complaining, but not out of worry or fear; they just wanted to grumble. Ibn Ezra sees their complaint as reflecting an evil motivation; and Rashi concurs, saying the complainers were looking for a way to distance themselves from God.


In short, their incessant whining is indicative that they are lacking both character and faith. The quick and easy verdict on the generation of the desert is that they were moral failures.


However, it’s not that simple. The full story of the generation of the desert is hidden from the text. The Torah is silent about most of their lives; there are no events recorded for 38 of the 40 years in the desert. This lack of information conspires against the generation of the desert and encourages us to condemn them. We only hear about their failures, not their day-to-day lives. Certainly, they must have done some good during those 38 years. But how good were they?


This issue is debated in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110b). It explains:


“The generation of the desert have no share in the World-to-Come … this is the view of Rabbi Akiva... Rabbi Eliezer says that (they were so pious that) about them the Book of Psalms (50:5) declares: “Gather My pious together to Me, those that have entered into My covenant.”


Rabbi Eliezer offers a revisionist view of the generation of the desert. He puts aside their complaints against Moshe and their lack of faith in God, and instead, focuses on the rest of the years they were in the desert. The Talmud explains Rabbi Eliezer was inspired by the verse in Jeremiah (2:2) which says: “Thus says the Lord: “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you followed Me into the desert, in a land that is barren.” Following God into the barren desert is a profound act of faith.


What about the complaining, the times that they tested God? Clearly, Rabbi Eliezer recognizes the generation of the desert was quite imperfect. But for all their failings, this generation did continue forward; and one must recognize that survival alone is heroic for a group of runaway slaves. One needs to see the positive in a complicated legacy.


Rabbi Eliezer does offer a rather generous reading of this generation’s legacy. It is fascinating that Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist, the one who always sees the best in human nature, takes a hard line on the generation of the desert; as the Talmud puts it “Rabbi Akiva left behind his kindness in this case.”


Why does Rabbi Akiva do this? I would speculate that it had a lot to do with his historical perspective. Rabbi Akiva dreamt of the Jews overtaking the Romans and was the foremost rabbinic supporter of the Bar Kochva rebellion. This would require stoic courage, a willingness to battle and accept losses; survival alone would not suffice.


That is why Rabbi Akiva needed to condemn the generation of the desert. Their spinelessness and dissension are the opposite of what is needed in a rebellion. Rabbi Akiva needed his own generation to despise cowardice.


In this case, current events suggest a particular interpretation of a complicated legacy.


As I mentioned before, family members wrestle with this subject as well. In my role as a Rabbi, I’ve watched families contend with complicated legacies at funerals as they prepare for their eulogies. There are many such scenarios; some include great leaders who were abusive parents, and predatory felons who were loving husbands.


More difficult to unwind are the legacies of people whose relationships change; parents who are estranged from their children, only to reenter their lives years later, or those who go in the opposite direction, and disengage from their children later in life. Such eulogies will often latch on to the few good years at the end. (A similar perspective is offered by Teshuvah, repentance, which sees the person’s character at the end of their life to be determinative.) But not every complicated relationship follows a timeline; some have good and bad interspersed.


Rabbi Eliezer offers a different way to interpret complicated legacies. He is willing to listen to the silences in the record and hear echoes of goodness. He appreciates how difficult the position of the generation in the desert was, and yet even so, they did end up being the parents of a generation of pioneers, whom they carried to the doorstep of the promised land. There is another story hidden between the lines of the text. And in their own struggle with complicated legacies, many family members use Rabbi Eliezer’s approach.


Years ago, I performed a very small unveiling, which was attended by the late woman’s child and another friend. The woman had suffered from serious mental illness all her adult years, and she had pushed her son away from a very young age; he never had an opportunity to form a loving relationship with his mother. I asked him at the unveiling if he had any memories of her that he thought he should share. The son thought for a moment, and said he remembered one time when he was sick, his mother, concerned about his welfare, made him a cup of tea and brought it to his bed. He explained that it was the one moment that he could see through the veil of mental illness and experience his mother’s love.


In his heart, the son could hear a voice of love breaking through all the confusion of a complicated legacy.

Friday, June 02, 2023

The Beauty of Small Blessings


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Priestly Blessing from 6th century B.C. in Jerusalem. Samuel and Saidye Bronfman

Archaeology Wing in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

It all happened because of an annoying teenager. In 1979, Israeli archaeologist Gavriel Barkai was leading the excavation of a burial cave on the slopes of the Hinnom Valley. With him that day was a group of teenage interns, including one boy that Barkai described as a nudnik, a complete annoyance; so Barkai sent the boy to do busy work in a room that had been combed through very carefully. A little while later, Barkai felt a tug on his jacket. There was the nudnik, holding what was obviously a rare archaeological find in his hand. This boy had discovered a spot that had never been surveyed before.


After a few days of non-stop excavation, Barkai came across an exceptional find: two small amulets made of silver, written in Paleo-Hebrew script, that were 2,700 years old. One of them was inscribed with the words of Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. It is the oldest inscription of a biblical verse that has been found.


There's something very fitting about this discovery. Although Birkat Kohanim is meant to be recited exclusively by Kohanim, it has become an extremely popular blessing for all occasions. It is part of the first prayers in the morning and the final prayers of the evening. Parents bless their children with Birkat Kohanim both on Friday nights and on special occasions, such as Erev Yom Kippur and at weddings. 


Birkat Kohanim is the biblical equivalent of a hit single. Even 2,700 years ago people were carrying its words around their necks, hoping that a little bit of this blessing would rub off on them.


Brevity may be part of Birkat Kohanim’s popularity; it is a total of fifteen words in Hebrew, in short, rhythmic sentences of three, five, and seven words. In English, the blessing is:


“May the Lord bless you and protect you;

May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;

May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’


What is striking is how generic the language of Birkat Kohanim is, perhaps because it is meant to be a brief, quick blessing. But the vague language of Birkat Kohanim animates a great deal of discussion among the commentaries, who, as the commentary of the Kli Yakar notes, “Each gives an interpretation according to their own sentiments.” They are searching for what the words of this blessing mean, and in a larger sense, what exactly it means to be blessed.


One approach is to view Birkat Kohanim as an accordion, embracing multiple possibilities in just a few words. The medieval commentary of Rav Yoseph Bechor Shor explains that the words "May the Lord bless you” means “with children, strength, wisdom, long life, greatness, both as you go out and as you come in, in the city and in the field, with wealth, with overflowing fruit baskets and kneading troughs…." To be blessed is to be blessed with many things. Bechor Shor follows the approach of an earlier commentary, the Sifrei, which interprets Birkat Kohanim as referring to the lists of blessings found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Simplicity allows Birkat Kohanim to be all-embracing, and condense multiple blessings into fifteen short words.


As beautiful as these interpretations sound, reality is quite different; blessings don't just arrive by the cartload. For this reason, many commentaries interpret the lack of specificity as an acknowledgment that blessings are difficult to define. (As the Netziv points out, a businessman and a Torah scholar pursue very different blessings, and each would be dissatisfied with the dreams of the other. One man’s blessing is another man’s boredom.) These commentaries focus instead on the section of Birkat Kohanim that offers a blessing of spiritual enlightenment: "May the Lord make his face shine on you." With enlightenment, all other divine gifts come into focus.


Like life itself, blessings are fragile and fleeting. This is already evident from the opening words of Birkat Kohanim: "May the Lord bless you and protect you." Ibn Ezra explains once you receive material blessings, you immediately need God's protection to prevent other people from stealing them. As the Mishna (Avot 2:7) puts it, the more one has, the more one has to worry about; blessings bring new complications of their own. And the greatest complication of all is human nature.


Humans are quite often the authors of their own misery. Maimonides writes that most of life’s problems are caused by human recklessness; poor habits can destroy one’s health and wealth, and human aggression can turn a blessed existence into a hellish landscape of death and destruction.


The blessing we need the most, to quote the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 11:6), is: "May God give you the wisdom to be gracious to each other and merciful to each other." Birkat Kohanim concludes with a blessing of peace, because, as the Mishnah (Uktzin 3:12) points out, peace is the “vessel which holds all other blessings.” Without peace, all the blessings of the world turn into curses; indeed, the more that people have, the more they have to fight over. And whether or not we have the blessing of peace is up to mankind.


This is the most significant message of Birkat Kohanim: a blessing is only a blessing if one can keep it.


Good tidings can also end up promoting bad character. The Netziv explains that when Birkat Kohanim talks about God’s protection, it is calling on God to protect us from the harmful effects of the very blessings we receive. A scholar who is given an abundance of wisdom is prone to arrogance; a businessman who meets a lot of success can become greedy and dishonest. One can receive many gifts in their lifetime; whether or not those gifts are truly a blessing depends on their character and values. In the wrong hands, blessings are destructive.


Finally, to have is not always to be happy. A great deal of what makes a blessing a blessing is our own subjective reaction to them. Even Bechor Shor, after offering his interpretation along with a lengthy list of blessings, writes that the ultimate blessing of Birkat Kohanim is that “you should be blessed with joy, that your heart should be happy with your lot.” 


This comment is a reference to the words of the Mishnah, “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” This Mishnah is often misread as promoting a lack of ambition, a willingness to sit back passively and accept what one is given. After all, one can be happy with their existing lot, so why pursue anything more? But then there would be no need for Birkat Kohanim, and no purpose for blessings and prayer.


Instead, the Mishnah is teaching a lesson of appreciation. Don’t become obsessed with social comparisons, and the mindset that if another person has more than you do, what you have is inadequate. Someone with a beautiful home will all too often feel disappointed if their neighbors have homes that are nicer than their own. (And with social media, the opportunities for social comparison are endless.)


Don't be carried off by what psychologists call a "hedonic treadmill," and expect more and more every day. It is easy to get excited about something new: a new house, a new suit, a new car. But very quickly, one can become accustomed to old blessings and take them for granted; and then begins the never-ending search for something even better.


To experience joy, one must first get off the hedonic treadmill and close one’s eyes to social comparison. To “be happy with one’s lot” is to appreciate the blessings one has, and accept them with gratitude.


There's a beautiful song from the Israeli singer Rami Kleinstein entitled Matanot Ketanot (Small Blessings) which talks about Friday afternoons in a small town in Israel. It was written by the songwriter Noam Chorev while on vacation in Thailand. He was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet on Friday afternoon he felt homesick, missing the magical atmosphere of an ordinary Shabbat evening back home.


The song begins with a description of the start of Shabbat. As the sun goes down, processions of people wearing white fill the streets, returning home from synagogue; the aromas of Shabbat food permeate the house, and Shabbat melodies fill the air.


The song's refrain continues:


Small presents,

Someone sent me small presents,

Traces of sincerity, droplets of faith.

Small presents,

Someone sent me small presents,

Like the power to accept,

What there isn't and what there is,

And what one can still pursue.


Matanot Ketanot offers an insight that is central to the interpretation of Birkat Kohanim. In our day-to-day life, we often pursue large blessings, as we should; but even so, we must never stop being enchanted by small presents, those everyday gifts from God. And if we can find within ourselves the ability to do so, we will truly be blessed.