Judging from the recent Pew Report on the status of American Jewry, Jews have a real problem with belief in God. I must say, I am not surprised. Across the board, God is probably the least spoken of “subject” in most synagogues. Is it any wonder then that the clientele does not know what to think about God and fall back on their secular educations to dismiss God as irrelevant?
This is not to say that there are no religious searchers among the Jews. There certainly are. It is just that the Judaism being offered by organized Judaism is religiously anemic and is focused on everything and anything but religion. Religious study is almost nonexistent for most Jews, and this includes what happens in our schools, so when the Pew survey asks: Do you believe in God as described in the Bible? How can a Jew answer this question when the closest most Jews have come to the Bible may be some telemovie?
It is not that people are not looking for a relationship with God. It is just that they are frustrated and do not know where to go to find answers to their questions in a friendly environment. And the lack of Jewish places to explore serious Jewish answers to their questions leads them to search elsewhere.
In this week’s parasha, we learn of God’s command to the kohanim (the priests) to bless the people. (Numbers 6:22-27) The priestly blessing is, as far as I can discern, the only remnant of the ritual from the Temples of old still in practice. In much of Israel, it takes place daily in the Shaharit (morning) service, in some communities only on Shabbat, and in many synagogues throughout the world, only on holidays. For many, this blessing provides a religious moment of intimacy between the worshipper and God.
Apparently, at some point, there were those who sensed that this intimacy might be lost in the manner in which this ritual was carried out. The following midrash relates a discussion between God and the children of Israel over the efficacy of this ritual:
When the Holy One Blessed be He said to Aaron and his sons: ‘Thus you shall bless the people of Israel’ (Number 6:22), Israel said before the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘Master of the World, you have charged the Kohanim with blessing us? We have no desire for any blessing other than Yours and we want to be blessed [directly] by Your mouth’, as it is written: ‘Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people’ (Deut.6:15) The Holy One Blessed be He replied to them: ‘Even though I said to the Kohanim that they should bless you, I stand with them and bless you.’ This explains why the kohanim spread forth their hands – to say that the Holy One Blessed be He stands behind them, and so it says: ‘Gazing through the window’ (Song of Songs 2:9) — from between the shoulders of the kohanim; ‘Peering through the lattice’ (Ibid.) — from between the fingers of the kohanim. (adapted from Numbers Rabbah 11:2)
What are we to take away from this anecdotal conversation? God assigned to the kohanim the ritual blessing of His people. The people, however, sought greater intimacy with the Divine, requesting that God bless them directly. God, in turn, informed them that, in fact, this very ritual served that purpose since the kohanim were technically only acting as a conduit for God’s blessing. In other words, the way they hold their hands and fingers represents a pathway for the divine blessing to reach the people.
What does it mean to say that the kohanim are conduits for God’s blessing? For one thing, they are not the “one blessing” — God is the “One Blessing”. The answer to this question is a message for all those who aspire to religious leadership. Religious leaders should not act as vicarious religious officiary. They should be teaching people to appreciate God’s presence in their lives and how to use the Jewish tradition as a tool for creating a relationship with God. The people of Israel made it quite clear in this midrash what they were looking for and the Pew survey indicates that the work is very much before us.