Friday, June 14, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Naso 5779 - Refolding the Fourth Fold

Many years back, in 1994, I wrote a musing for Shabbat Naso that has been reused and reposted a few times as I always seem to run into conflicts around this time of year that keep me busy and make it difficult to write fresh musings. This year, I ran into those conflicts the past few weeks, and had to defer to recycled musings. I had the time to write an entirely new musing this week. I didn’t. I feel somewhat guilty at again recycling some older material, but, truth be told, I really did have a new insight to add, and even though I actually started putting together several different variation o entirely new musings, I kept coming back to wanting to expand upon this one just one more time. So here it is. It starts out with the original text used in 1994, then edited and updated in 2004 and 2007. I’ve done a small touch of new editing, interspersed a few new thoughts, and then added in my new thoughts at the end.

The Fourth Fold (Refolded)

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

Y'varech'cha Ad"nai v'yishmarekha

24 The LORD bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

Yaeir Ad"nai panav eilekha v'chuneka

25 The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם

Yisa Ad"nai panav eilekha, v’yaseim l'kha shalom.

26 The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

Y'varech'cha Ad"nai v'yishmarecha Yaeir Ad"nai panav eilecha v'chunecha Yisa Ad"nai panav eilecha, vayaseim l'cha shalom.

In the Ashkenazi rite, there is a fourth line that gets left off the Priestly benediction. (It is included in the Sephardi rite.)

וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃

V'samu et-sh'mi al-b'nei Yisrael v'ani avarkhem.

27 Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

Yes, omitting it helps preserve the beautiful poetic structure of the three-fold benediction. And even modern leadership and management pundits sing the virtues of the triad in writing and speaking.

But in dropping this line from this blessing, I think perhaps we are losing something.

"They shall put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them." (The JPS version says "link My name" which, in context, also seems to fit.)

Some might say the fourth line merely restates the obvious. In each of the previous three lines, we are told that G"d is in charge, and it is by G"d's grace that good things are bestowed upon us. So why remind us that we need to link G"d's name with our people?

But that's exactly the point. We DO need to be reminded. Sometimes we don't make the connection-we take G"d for granted. And we forget the special nature of our connection with G"d - our holy covenant.

The threefold benediction has been bandied about a lot, especially in recent times, especially by liberal Jews. (The Orthodox generally reserve this benediction for particular usages and times. In Reform, especially, the usage has seen a wide variance.)  For one thing, it's not popular these days to say anything that might seem exclusivist. (That may be another reason the fourth line has been dropped from the blessing.)  In many congregations, the priestly benediction is used regularly at services as a replacement for the whole at home evening bless by parents of children (which also includes the Hamalakh HaGoel.) Routinely now, at services, parents with children present are asked to bless their children as the priestly benediction is said.

Yet again, in our discomfort with anything exclusivist (perhaps in this case, those present without children with them) we’re modifying our prayers and services. In fact, in the congregation where I work, and in other congregations around the country, the usage of an expanded version of the three-fold benediction has been introduced. I’ve heard several variations. In our congregation, parents with children present stand and the first two verses of the blessing are said. Then, the version we’re using starts the third benediction

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ

but then stops there, at which point everyone in the congregation is asked to stand, and the following more inclusive text is recited to complete the blessing:

הָרַחְמָן הּוא יְבָרְֵך אֶת כֻלָנּ

Harachaman Hu Y’varekh et kulanu,

וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לָנּ שָׁלֽוֹם

v’yaseim lanu shalom

May the Merciful One bestow favor upon all of us and grant us peace!

Note that I’m not complaining about or critical of this practice. In fact, I participated in helping to shape it. We have a young rabbi, and she has young children, and she has opened the congregation’s eyes to being welcoming and open to the presence of young children at services. Utilizing the priestly blessing as a moment to make families feel welcome and appreciated seems a somewhat appropriate choice. I’ll admit it can still be a little jarring, largely because we’re attempting to integrate it using a modified version of Steve Dropkin’s musical setting of Y’varekh’kha.  I’m not entirely sure we’ve yet found the best way to utilize the priestly blessing in an inclusive manner, but I’m all for experimenting with prayer and the worship service.

In congregations where adults at services generally outnumber children, it makes a certain sense to not make adults without any children, or with grown children, or simply with children who are not present to feel excluded, and this extended form of the priestly blessing can help accomplish that. At the same time, I do find myself asking why every moment must always be about everybody. I am very much a universalist, but even I think there are times and places where it is acceptable for Judaism to differentiate itself, and within Jewish practice for people to differentiate themselves (i.e. adults and children) as long as the differentiation is not in service, even unintentionally, to any form of repression, exclusion (i.e. misogyny, age-ism, etc.) or  exceptionalism. These are the challenges of shaping Judaism (and Jewish education) for the 21st century and beyond.

Despite the daily horror show in which we are living, especially here in the U.S., there are good things happening around us. Our children are certainly more universalist in their attitudes, more accepting and embracing of diversity (almost to the point of not really seeing differences, for example, between a married couple of two genders or just one.) When Judaism is trying to sell the exclusivism, they’re just not buying it. If we aren’t helping them pave the way to their imagined and desired future, we simply become obstacles to be brushed aside, or trampled underneath. If we work with them side-by-side, we can help them to understand when and where there are places to allow for things that are, if not exclusive or unique, things, ideas, practices, etc. which we hold particularly dear to ourselves as Jews.

I’ve really digressed, and I’d like to circle back now to where this musing started back when it was first written. I want to come back to the priestly blessing as we inherited it. Forget any modifications for inclusivity (though ignore the inherent gendering of the language, if you can.)

From the preceding verses (22 and 23) it’s clear that this blessing was to be said by the priests. Well, they’re gone. The rabbis, through the story of the oven at Ahknai, and various other devices, seem to have made themselves the inheritors of the power the Torah grants to the priests of Aaron to recite this blessing on behalf of the people. It's been used at all sorts of occasions, and in all sorts of contexts, and by all sort of people – ordained clergy, lay leaders, people who claim the status of being a kohen or not.  It is also widely in use in Christian worship. It's my personal belief, too, that sometimes it's a bit overused-simply because it is such a powerful piece of poetry and prayer. Really, really good blessings like this one-do they lose their power and majesty when overused? Can one really overuse a prayer or blessing? Some would say not. I think we can, and I believe we are the worse for it, despite good intentions (remember Nadav and Avihu? On the other hand, remember Eldad and Medad. Sigh.) I find it a very powerful and moving blessing, elegant in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity, in the manner of Mozart. (Better, surely, than Mozart, for its author outshines Mozart in every way!) But again I digress.

I think the priestly benediction has lost the connection to its original purpose, because of the omission of the fourth line. It has become a prayer where we, as a community, or as individuals, ask and pray for G"d's blessing. In it's original form, I think perhaps it was a telling or an instruction. G"d will bless you and keep you. G"d will make G”d's face to shine on you. G"d will bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.

וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃

V'samu et-sh'mi al-b'nei Yisrael v'ani avarkhem.

27 Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

This is the true and full meaning of the blessing, in my view. G"d will keep us, because G"d has a special covenant with us, and will bless the people Israel. (That doesn't mean G"d won't bless or keep anybody else. Our covenant doesn't necessarily make us better than others. If anything, it is an obligation and a burden.) This fourth line is our reminder of who we are, and that in all our prayers, we must remember G"d's covenant with us. It's hard, in the aftermath of the Shoah, in the aftermath of almost two millennia of persecution and misfortune, and in light of modernity, to sometimes remember that we, Israel, are a covenanted people. It thus being so hard, we all the more need now to include this fourth line with our use of the threefold benediction (I think all my past English teachers would shudder at that sentence...but I digress again.) When so much about us makes us doubt G"d, makes us doubt the reality and continuance of Israel's covenant with G"d, we need to be reminded.

Perhaps there’s a way to incorporate this fourth line with the additional or modified non-exclusionary language, making the prayer even more inclusive?

OK, so here I am again in 2019, realizing there’s an additional point I want to make. More than the including of the original fourth verse of the blessing serves to illuminate our covenantal relationship with G”d, I believe it serves an even greater purpose. It (like the revisions being used in my congregation and elsewhere) draws attention to this as a communal blessing. The first three verses are in the singular. (And this is also why they have become and work well as part of the normative bedtime prayers by parents for children.) Those are not plural “you” suffixes. (They could have been. The prayer could have been written as “May G”d bless y’all…”) That does not mean that we do not understand the “you” as meaning each of us – but “each of us” is not the same as “all of us” (and now, as a I think about it, this may be why I haven’t fully grown to appreciate or accept the revised version using “kulanu.”) When the priests said these words to the people, each person understood that it was being spoken to each of them, individually. It’s the missing fourth line (at least in the Ashkenazi rite) that reaffirms that the individual “yous” are all part of the blessing and the covenant as “b’nei Yisrael” the “children of Israel.” It’s a subtle difference: “each of us” and “all of us.” Or is it? This is sometimes I think we all need to think about and consider.

So I conclude as I did back in 1999:

Next time you say or hear this powerful blessing, trying adding that extra line:

וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃

V'samu et-sh'mi al-b'nei Yisrael v'ani avarkhem.

27 Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

My prayer for you and yours this Shabbat: link G"d's name with the people of Israel, your people, so that you remember G"d's covenant with them-with you. I pray this for  each of us. For all of us.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2019 (portions ©1999, 2004, 2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Naso 5778 – G'd's Roadies (Revised and Revisited)
Nasso 5775 - West-Tzorah-Side Story
Naso 5773 - Guilt. Self. It.
Naso 5772 - Keeping Me On My Toes II
Naso 5771 - The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)

No comments: