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D’var Torah Nasso

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:

Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

Herod and Hands: Hiding and Revealing God’s Glory

Joshua Kulp

The Halakhah in the Parashah

The Temple in Jerusalem, at least as it was built by Herod in the first century C.E., was a spectacular site; today even its ruins are a feast for the eyes. Hazal says (Bava Batra 4a): “One who has not seen Herod’s building has never seen a beautiful building in his life. With what did he build it? Rabbah said: With stones of white and green marble. There are those who say that he built it with stones of blue, white, and green marble. …He considered covering it with gold, but the Rabbis said to him: Leave it, and do not cover it, since it is more beautiful this way, as it looks like the waves of the sea.”

Today, on Shabbat and hagim, I daven in the gym of a local school. I might say, “one who has never seen this local gym, has never seen a shabby gym in his life.” But maybe, in some way, this shabby gym is a more Jewish space than Herod’s Temple. Maybe.

Our parashah contains one of the most famous liturgies in all of Judaism, the priestly blessing. Originally, this blessing was a Temple ritual, and is alluded to in Leviticus 9:22, “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being.” But with the destruction of the Temple, this blessing was brought out of the Temple and became part of the daily Amidah (see Mishnah Sotah 7:7). In Israel, this blessing is recited by kohanim every day of the year, but outside of Israel, in Ashkenazi custom, the blessing is recited only during Musaf of the festivals (see the words of the Rema in Shulkhan Arukh, YD, 128:44).

The birkat kohanim can be a spectacle. Imagine thousands of priests gathering together, lifting their hands over their heads and blessing the people of Israel. If you google “priestly blessing at kotel” you will see impressive looking videos and pictures of this event. But, at least during tefillot themselves, this is not what is supposed to occur. Shulkah Arukh 128:23, warns both the kohanim and the other Jews being blessed that this is not what birkat kohanim is about. R. Yosef Karo writes: “The congregation should be attentive to the blessing, and their faces should face the kohanim, but they should not stare at them.” The people should not look at the kohanim while the blessing is being recited. To this, R. Moshe Isserles (the Rema) adds, “And the Kohanim should also not stare at their own hands; therefore, it is customary for them to wrap their tallis on their faces and keep their hands outside the tallis. And there are some places where they have the custom that their hands are kept within the tallis, so that the congregation does not stare at them.” As an additional precaution, today some members of the congregation cover their heads with a tallis as well, all to protect them from seeing the hands of the kohanim, which cannot be seen anyways because they too are already covered with a tallis.

In Hebrew, we might ask about all this, כל כך למה לי? Why do we go to such extraordinary lengths to avoid seeing the hands of the kohanim? This is explained in Yerushalmi Megillah 4:8. R. Yose, in response to a mishnah which prohibits kohanim with either deformed or painted hands from offering the blessing, states that it is prohibited to look at the hands of the kohanim while they are blessing. R. Hagay responds that this is due to the distraction, but he has enough self-control to avoid distraction, so he can look. The rest of us, who are not so good at avoiding distractions, are not allowed to look. As the Rema explains, the custom of putting the tallit over the face or hands is to avoid seeing the hands, which can be distracting. In the end, the tallit itself can still be a distraction, and thus the custom for the congregation to look down during this blessing. But what are we worried about becoming distracted from?

Contemplating this question can offer us two clues towards understanding Jewish prayer. The first is that prayer is an introspective activity, one that occurs mostly in what ancient people would say is the heart and we would say is the mind. During the regular hours of the day, we might, and indeed we should, admire the magnificence of God’s creation, but during prayer, we turn inwards. We do not look outward, we examine our inner selves. The gym in which I daven is not a beautiful cathedral, but God can be found in the gym of a school just as easily, and perhaps more authentically, than in the grandest of cathedrals.

And the second point flows from this–God’s blessing pours out from the hands of the kohanim, but the kohanim are merely a vessel and should not be confused with the source of the blessing. Indeed, the tosafist Rabbenu Yitzchak does not understand why a non-kohen cannot offer the blessing (see Tosafot Shabbat 118b). The blessing is also recited by Jews on other occasions, and not just by kohanim. The rabbis inherited a world in which the Temple was central, and with it the kohanim. But that is not the world we inhabit. The priestly blessing is a vestige of this world, but ultimately we are to understand that blessing comes from God, not from other human beings.

Herod’s building was indeed beautiful and remains impressive to this day, even in its destruction. But this can all be a distraction, and so when the kohanim offer their blessings, we hear and listen with intent, but we do not look.

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