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.

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