God, May We Grant You Peace?

Y’varekhekha Adonai V’yishm’rekha.
Ya-eir Adonai Panav eilekha vi-khuneka.
Yisa Adonai Panav eilekha v’yasem l’kha shalom.

May God bless you and guard you.
May God cause God’s face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God lift up God’s face toward you and grant you peace.

As I tell every recipient of this priestly blessing during our prayer services, this blessing which God commanded the ancient priests to recite daily over the people of Israel is not what we would expect of a blessing.  It contains no wish that the recipient be gifted with health, wealth, fame, celebrity, power, or popularity.  It calls forth God’s active presence in a person’s or community’s life, a presence whose most apparent manifestation is shalom, peace.

Murderous attacks on innocent human beings from Sarona in Tel Aviv to the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, are making this lovely blessing ring a little more hollow to me right now.  Donald Trump’s vindictive assaults upon any minority who he can use as cannon fodder to exploit the fear and hatred of his voter base are making this touching blessing feel a little less believable to me right now.

Surely, we can argue that this is precisely why these words of the Torah are a blessing anchored in faith, not necessarily fact:  we invoke them as part of our endless leap of faith in peace, clinging to them like we would cling to a ladder to safety that is surrounded by flames.  Yet, just as surely, we know how easily this faith gets blunted and worn.  Paraphrasing what the poet, Emily Dickinson, wrote during the bloody American civil war, right now it feels like peace is a fiction of our faith, not a serious hope to be realized.

Realizing how difficult peace is to imagine, let alone achieve, Rabbi Shalom Noach Beresovsky, the rebbe – or master – of the Slonimer Hasidic sect, wrote a beautiful and insightful essay on the nature of peace from a Jewish mystical perspective.  The following is how I imagine he would explain some of his ideas to a modern, non-Hasidic audience:

“Gadol Ha-shalom, peace is great.  So begins each passage in that small Jewish classic, Perek Ha-Shalom, “The Chapter On Peace”, a medieval collection of ancient Jewish wisdom concerning peace. 

Gadol Ha-shalom, peace is great. Allow me to rework this Hebrew phrase somewhat scandalously: Nadosh Ha-Shalom, peace is a platitude.  We endlessly mouth praises of peace; we say we love peace; however, our actions indicate that we have little idea what we mean by the word. Our commitments to peace can be hollow utterances at best, blind loyalty to life in narrow, rigid comfort zones at worst.  We labor under two dangerous misconceptions about peace that obstruct our ability to achieve it. Some people assume that peace is a quietist principle:  a mere absence of war, conflict and violence at best.  Some assume that peace is a kind of cloaked pugilism, in which all disagreement and conflict are forcibly rooted out in the interests of lockstep conformity and rigid uniformity.  Both ideas are dangerous, for the first leads to passivity and the second leads to dictatorship.  Jewish religion takes the following different view.

All of creation is founded upon a dynamic relationship between opposites:  cold and hot, winter and summer, night and day, love and hate, to name a few.  At the level of cosmic reality, all pairings of opposites are inherently contradictory, and it is uncanny that life functions at all, given so many irreconcilable forces in existence.  Underlying and integrating all of them is peace, a unifying energy created by God that forces the universe to retain coherence and that keeps us alive.  Our most ancient texts express this idea mythologically through the image of the two angels, Michael and Gabriel. Angels don’t get violent or have conflict because they lack yetzer ha-ra, the human propensity towards evildoing.  Nonetheless, Michael is made of fire, while Gabriel is made of water, two elementally opposed forces that, left unchecked, can destroy the entire universe and each other.  But as the popular prayer states, God is Oseh Shalom Bimeromav, the One Who actively imposes peace upon those angelic inhabitants of heaven.  God never changes or obliterates their character, but God does reconcile and integrate them.

If this is what God needs to do in the sedate celestial realm, how much more so does God need to do this here on earth, where human moral freedom allows us the freedom to be hateful and violent?”  Even more so, God needs us to get the work of peace done.”

I love Rabbi Beresovsky’s idea that peace is a dynamic principle inherent and active in nature, yet which needs you and me to make it work within human society.  Note also how he recognizes that humanity and all of nature achieve peace through the dynamic interaction of opposites:  diversity is a fact of existence and peace is the result of all diverse things and people working together. It is not only we humans with all of our diversity and divisions who need God’s gift of peace; it is, as it were, God who needs our diverse gifts of active peacemaking as well.  It is all too easy for us to collapse into tiny, tight, implosive knots of bigotry, fear, fantasy, or apathy to protect ourselves from the blows of hatred and violence inflicted upon us by a very few people.  That is precisely what they want and what God begs us not to do.

Birkat Kohanim is certainly a human cry of faith in God’s peace. Let me suggest that it can also be read as our cry of assurance to God that we are steadfast partners in making peace.  Here is how I would creatively re-translate the blessing. The words yiva-rekhekha, ya-eir and yisa, “May He bless, may He shine light, and may He lift,” all refer to God in the third person.  We are telling the recipient that we hope God will give him or her these blessings.  What if we switched the third and second person references, so that instead of addressing another person or people, we were addressing God?

Thus, Birkat Kohanim could be translated this way:

God, may humanity bless and guard You.

God, may humanity cause its face to shine upon You and be gracious to You.

God, may humanity lift up its face to You and grant You peace.

My reading is not the pshat, the simple meaning of the blessing, and it scandalizes us with its implications that somehow God needs our blessings of peace.  Yet it actually stands within a great Jewish tradition which recognizes that, as Abraham Heschel once wrote, God is in search of Man, without whom God’s work of peace and justice simply cannot be done.

When we read Birkat Kohanim both ways, we place ourselves, with God, at the center of the great human and cosmic struggle to make peace a reality.  We recognize that peace might feel often like a fiction of our faith.  Yet, like any great work of fiction, it reflects deep realities and ideals that resonate with us.  In the dark times ahead, I hope that we will remember to seek out God’s authorship of peace hidden within the tragic wreckage of the human narrative.  Just as important, I hope that we will not despair of assuming the challenge to be God’s co-authors as well.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.