One of the challenging theological questions often asked is: “Did the events in the Bible actually happen?” For some, if it is in the Torah it must have occurred because God, Moses and our patriarchs and matriarchs say it did. Others argue that unless you have incontrovertible proof to demonstrate that something happened, doubt still exists. And even for those who might be uncertain, faith is often enough to maintain that the words of the Torah are in fact Divine in some way. Every now and then, however, something comes up in our tradition that does in fact have historical basis, strengthening my faith, and hopefully yours as well, in God and Torah.
In 1979, just to the west of the current Old City of Jerusalem, in the Valley of Hinnom, a family burial cave was found containing repositories for gathered dead bones. Hidden in the ruins, archaeologists found a silver amulet now known as the Ketef Hinnom inscription. The text on the amulet dates back to the First Temple Period, sometime around the late seventh and early sixth century BCE, just a hundred-plus years before the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. This text is the earliest known citation from the Hebrew Bible as well as the earliest confessional statement about “Adonai” our God. This amulet, which can be seen today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, demonstrates that as early (if not earlier) as the First Temple period, Jews were living as Jews, following the Torah and praying to one God.
So, what was on the amulet? None other than the Priestly Blessing — Birkat Kohanim — which is a direct quotation from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso (Numbers 6:23-26). This blessing has become an integral part of our tradition, offered when we bless our children on Shabbat, to couples under the chuppah (marriage canopy), to bar/bat mitzvah students and in other moments of celebration or when we are in need of Divine protection and support. At its core, the Priestly Benediction bestows upon us the gifts of blessing, light and peace.
Bible professor Jacob Milgrom notes how this blessing is “simple, and in its simplicity lies its strength.” He further comments: “God initiates six actions: bless and protect; shine and be gracious; bestow and grant peace. However, the transitional ‘and’ may indicate consequence: blessing results in protection; God’s shining face results in grace; the bestowal of God’s favor results in peace. Thus the Priestly Blessing may actually express three actions” (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, 51).
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, suggests that while Milgrom reads the Priestly Blessing as what God will do for us, it can also be read as what we can offer to ourselves: a personal transformation that occurs when we harness God’s blessings and use them to inspire us to act with goodness (JTS Commentary on Nasso 2014/5774). When we personally bless one another, it is as if we are also offering a blessing back to God. In essence, while it is always wonderful to feel God’s blessing and protection, it is also important for each of us to realize that we can do our part to bring about blessings of peace in the world through graciousness, kindness and bringing light to the world.
As we enter Shabbat, allow me to offer my own revised version of the Priestly Blessing, drawing on the verses from the Torah, those same verses that were used in Temple times, the rabbinic period, the Middle Ages and today.
May God bless you and watch over you — and may we bless and watch over one another.
May God make God’s presence enlighten you and grant you grace — and may we make our presence known to God, to our neighbors, families and community, bringing grace to the world.
May God lift God’s face toward you, and grant you peace — and may we lift our faces to those in need as we unite in the pursuit of peace.
May these Divine words that have blessed us throughout the generations continue to bless us today and for all time. Amen.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at email@example.com.