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Friday, June 10, 2011

May you be blessed / Yerushalmi Berakhot 13b

A dear friend who died this past January taught me the power of blessing in the last year of his life. Diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, he was determined to make the time he had left meaningful to him and others. He wanted to be a blessing. Everywhere he went he bestowed blessings on people. He told me that everyone yearns to be blessed. He told me I, too, should bestow blessings on people. At first this sounded presumptuous to me. Who am I to bless others? He responded that blessings are hopes for someone, not guarantees and not a claim to power, so there is no arrogance involved. Then it sounded hokey. He told me that if it feels uncomfortable and hokey, get over it because it’s good for others. As his condition deteriorated, I came to realize (yet again) that time is our most precious commodity, and that he was absolutely right: get over it and get over it quickly because other people should not have to wait for what they need.

I want to share one very short passage in the Yerushalmi, Berakhot 13b. It begins by citing Mishnah 1:5:
MISHNAH: And on shabbat, they add one blessing for the outgoing mishmar (guard).

GEMARA: What is the blessing [they added]? R. Chelbo said: This is it: “May the One Who dwells in this house plant among you companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.”
Perhaps you’re wondering: What is a mishmar? The Priests and Levites were divided into twenty-four “guards” (mishmarot) to offer the daily sacrifices and performed the ancillary work of the Temple, in rotation, in order to involve as many people as possible. The change-of-shift to the new mishmar occurred every shabbat in the late afternoon as evening arose. The previous mishmar would offer the morning and musaf (additional) sacrifice for shabbat, and then the new mishmar would come to replace them. Their first act was to replace the twelve loaves of showbread on the table in the Temple. In the time of the Second Temple, the population had increased prodigiously and the Priests and Levites were so numerous that the mishmarot (guards) were further subdivided into batei avot (subdivisions) and often each person performed at most one task during his week of service. Mishnah 1:5 tells us that as one guard left and another came on duty, a blessing was added to the evening recitation of the Shema on that occasion.

The additional blessing is beautiful: “May the One Who dwells in this house [i.e., the Temple, where the changing of the guards is taking place] plant among you companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.” (The Bavli – Babylonian Talmud – on Berakhot 12a records virtually the same blessing, except that the order of companionship and loyalty is reversed.)

The Hebrew in the Mishnah is a bit ambiguous: U’v’shabbat mosifin b’rakha achat la’mishmar ha-yotzei can mean both, “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for the outgoing mishmar [to recite],” and “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for [the sake of] the outgoing mishmar.”

Traditional commentators agree that the outgoing mishmar recited this blessing for the incoming mishmar, expressing the hope that their service for the coming week would be marked by “companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.” Perhaps they had in mind a disturbing and graphic incident recorded in Yoma 23a. The priesthood had proliferated so that even menial tasks were deemed highly desirable. Cleaning away the ashes from the altar early in the morning (t’rumat ha-deshen) became a competitive foot race up the altar, on one occasion with disastrous consequences:
It once happened that two [of the priests] were neck and neck as they ran and ascended the ramp [to the altar]. One of them came within four cubits [of the top of the ramp]. His colleague took a knife and drove it into his heart. (Yoma 23a)
Perhaps the blessing was intended to remind the incoming mishmar that their holy work for the week to come should not devolve into a vicious competition of the most unholy kind. It was meant to draw them together as they served in the Temple for the sake of Israel, not serve as an opportunity for self-centered and self-aggrandizing behavior.

The Hebrew, however, lends itself to another interpretation: “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for [the sake of] the outgoing mishmar.” In this reading, the incoming guard bestows a blessing on the outgoing guard, expressing the hope that their service of the past will inspire them to bring “companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship” home with them to their families and communities. May the One who dwells in the house – i.e. God who dwells in the Holy of Holies – bless their houses (both familial and communal) with the very attributes that should mark their service in Jerusalem. In this way, they truly represent the people, and their service in the Temple reaches those of Israel who live outside Jerusalem.

I think of this alternate understanding in connection with our service to God: prayer, study, chesed (deeds of kindness), pursuit of social justice, or whatever we do in response to God in our lives. Do we do it purely for our own spiritual benefit, or do we do it with a mind to also share the blessings we seek for ourselves, with others?

I recall reading in a prayer book, but do not know the original source, a thought that has always stuck with me: “Those who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”

I am especially intrigued and moved by the word yita (“plant”) – “May the One Who dwells in this house plant within you…” The image of planting attributes is one of setting down roots that will take hold in firm soil, blossom, and propagate, giving rise to new generations and bearing fruit for many. The blessings we bring to others – and the blessing we are to others – do precisely that. May you be blessed with life, peace, joy, and fulfillment in all that you do.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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