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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ties that Bind / Yerushalmi Berakhot 5a

Infatuation can be intense, but it lacks mutuality and is usually short-lived. Genuine love is reciprocated and self-sustaining because both partners nurture one another. Our prayers speak of love often – the love between God and the people Israel. The mutual quality of that relationship is often reflected in our liturgy.

In my last posting, I discussed two models the Rabbis envision for us in prayer. Both involve standing erect with legs together: angels and priests. Having mentioned the priests, the Gemara turns to a discussion of the descendants of priests who recite the Birkat Kohanim (the priestly benediction) in the synagogue. Birkat Kohanim is inserted in birkat shalom (the final benediction of the Amidah) during the reader’s repetition. There is a tradition of duchenen in some synagogue: all those who are considered kohanim (descendants of the biblical priests according to the paternal line) assemble in the front of the congregation, place their tallitot over their heads, and blessed the assembled congregation with the threefold benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites, found in Numbers 6:24-26:
May God bless you and keep you. May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace.
Here is a picture of the kohanim delivering the priestly benediction (duchenen) at the Kotel on Sukkot.

The Rabbis of the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) explain that the congregation responds antiphonally to each of the three blessings with a verse from the Bible, creating a conversation between the kohanim blessing the people, and the people receiving God’s blessing through the kohanim. Alternatively, you can think of it as a canon in which two different tunes are interwoven and their “notes” blend to create a new piece of music. In Shacharit (the morning service) the kohanim recite Numbers 6:24-26, and the congregation responds with Psalm 103:20-22.

The verses from Psalm 103, as we find them in that psalm, speak of the heavenly retinue, God’s hosts, who do God’s will. They come at the end of the psalm, seemingly as a contrast to human beings, who are the subject of the psalm up through verse 18. Verse 19 introduces the idea of God’s sovereignty over heaven, as well as earth. The psalm then closes with these three verses:
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey the voice of his word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his servants who do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless God, O my soul.
The “canon” looks like this:
PRIESTS: May God bless you and keep you. (Numbers 6:24)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey the voice of his word. (Psalm 103:20)

PRIESTS: May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Numbers 6:25)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his servants who do his will. (Psalm 103:21)

PRIESTS: May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless God, O my soul. (Psalm 103:22)
My first observation is that the antiphonal voice of Psalm 103 makes relational sense: the kohanim are calling down God’s blessings on the congregation, and the congregation responds by blessing God. For a relationship to be meaningful, it must be mutual. (We see this affirmed liturgically in the insertion of Shema after the blessing for Revelation. The prayer for Revelation says, in essence, “God loved us so much, God gave us Torah.” Shema is a response to the question that affirmation inspires: how do we show our love for God?) But Psalm 103:20-21 are not about human beings blessing God; these are the blessings of angelic creatures in heaven. It is as if the kohanim are the earthly stand-ins for God’s angels. The priests-as-angels bless the people, and the people respond by affirming that those who bless them also bless God – like angels. Perhaps this is inspired by the earlier discussion about standing erect like an angel to pray (please see my previous posting on this subject). The third response, Psalm 103:22, clearly refers to those in the congregation. Perhaps what is happening is that the congregation affirms the stature of the kohanim to call down God’s blessings in the first two responses, and then after all three blessings of Birkat Kohanim are recited, the congregation responds by blessing God.

The Gemara goes on to say that for Musaf (the additional service on Shabbat and festivals), the congregation’s responses are taken from Psalm 134:1-3 (Psalm 134 has only three verses), creating a second canon that looks like this:

PRIESTS: May God bless you and keep you. (Numbers 6:24)
CONGREGATION: Now bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who stand nightly in the house of the Lord. (Psalm 134:1)

PRIESTS: May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Numbers 6:25)
CONGREGATION: Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and bless the Lord. (Psalm 134:2)

PRIESTS: May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26)
CONGREGATION: May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. (Psalm 134:3)
Here, the first and second verses of Psalm 134 project the image of a priest in the Temple, standing guard at night, lifting his hands toward the Mikdash (the Hebrew in verse 2 is “Kodesh,” a term for the Temple itself). This seems altogether fitting, since it is the descendants of the kohanim who are calling down God’s blessing on the congregation, and the congregation responds yet again by affirming that the kohanim bless God – this time as priests. The third verse, however, shifts the focus, as did the third verse in the Psalm 103 triplet above, but not in the same direction. It does not serve as the congregation’s blessing for God. Rather, in the context of Birkat Kohanim, it functions as the congregation’s reciprocal blessing of the kohanim.

In this way, both “canons” of Birkat Kohanim link the kohanim, congregation, and God in a circle of blessing, an intimate relationship of love and nurturance. The kohanim – as both angel-stand-ins and as Temple priests – serve as the tie that binds, just as they did when the Temple stood. I am not calling for a return to duhenen in liberal congregations that no longer practice this tradition, but certainly understanding how our liturgy and rituals function to bind us closer to God is valuable.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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