5762 - #33


Sifri, Naso 144 states that God declares “and I will bless you”1 at the conclusion of the discussion of the Priestly blessing2 to clarify that it is ultimately God alone, and not the Kohanim, that blesses the Jewish People.3 Similarly Rabbi Akiva declares, in T.B. Yoma 85b, that it is God alone that cleanses the Jewish People -- that provides atonement for the Jewish People4 -- and not Yom Kippur5 or the sacrificial order. Yet if God is the sole source of forgiveness, what is the very need for Yom Kippur or atonement sacrifices? If God is the sole source of blessings, what is the need for the Priestly blessing?
For many, the very idea of brachot, blessings,
6 and tephilla, prayer, is problematic. If God is All-Powerful and All-Knowing, what exactly can a blessing or a prayer accomplish? Since God already has all the information and His decisions are faultless, how can prayer affect the Divine decision?7 The only possible answer is that the brachot or tephillot themselves change the facts and, therefore, necessitate a new response from God. Effectively, the world that exists before the Priestly blessing -- which yielded one decision by God -- no longer exists. What exists now is a world that contains this Priestly blessing and individuals who were recipients of this blessing. This new world situation calls for a reconsideration, in a favourable light, of God’s original decision.
Brachot and tephillot are, thus, not just requests for mercy or favour but actually are deemed to change reality. When we pray for someone who is ill, we are not simply asking from God to heal the individual. By praying, we are changing the situation. We are declaring that the Divine decision that resulted in this illness was based on certain facts. These facts have now changed. There is now an individual requesting mercy -- through prayer.
8 This is a new fact that must now be considered by God with the hopeful result that it will result in a new decision of good health.
Yet, how does this work? Why should this new fact effect the overall situation and lead to the potential for a new decision? The mystic would answer that that there are unseen forces that exist in the universe that are affected by human acts, specifically mitzvot. The Priestly blessing, brachot and tephillot in general -- in fact all mitzvot -- are positive forces within the olam hanistar, the hidden spiritual world, that in turn effects the reality that our senses perceive. Just as a medicine may cure an illness -- actually change the situation -- a blessing may cure the hidden spiritual problem that is causing the illness.
Rabbi Akiva’s statement, as understood by the mystic, is that, while there is indeed a lack when certain mitzvot cannot be performed, ultimately God can intervene and override the mystical forces. But the question still surfaces: why do you need such mystical forces in the first place? To the mystic, the answer may lie in the very fact that such forces present a different reality. Connection to this spiritual reality is perceived to reflect a powerful commitment to God, as a believer responds to the world inherently differently than a non-believer. In accepting the significance of the Priestly blessing and acting in desire of it, one accepts the significance of this act. One thereby declares an acceptance of a participant God. But can this act still not be bypassed? In a certain way, Rabbi Akiva still declares the action ultimately irrelevant.
A different model would tie God’s involvement in life to the individual not hidden mystical forces. If a bracha changes the reality, it is because it changes those actually participating in the bracha and that change in turn affects the reality. Within this perspective, it is not the act alone that affects the situation but the effect upon the person that changes the situation. The Priestly blessing -- both for the Kohanim and for those they are blessing -- should cause some change in the people -- in thought or emotion. This is the change that God is now asked to consider in a re-contemplation of the original decision.
Within this perspective, Rabbi Akiva’s statement can now be understood in a different light. Of course, the loss of the Temple is a loss. The mitzvot performed within the Temple could have a great effect upon those who participated and those who watched. We are lacking these mitzvot; we are lacking these stimuli for personal growth. But they are not irreplaceable. Ultimately our focus must be upon God and the demand to meet His standards.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Bamidbar 6:27.

2 Further on the mitzvah upon the Kohanim to bless the Jewish People, see Sefer HaChinuch 378.

3 See, however, Malbim, Bamidbar 6:27 which reflects variant opinions in regard to this concept. See, also, T.B. Chullin 49a.

4 See Maharsha amongst others.

5 See HaRif in the Ein Yaakov. There are those that contend that Rabbi Akiva specifically made this statement in response to the theological attacks of the early Christians upon the Jewish populace. The Christians would challenge that without the Temple, and the sacrificial service therein, there was no hope for atonement unless one adopted the Christian faith. Rabbi Akiva answered with this declaration that it is God Who forgives and the lack of a Temple -- or, in fact, any external factor -- cannot and does not detract from God’s Ability to grant atonement.

6 Obviously we are referring to blessings upon people, not brachot that are said in preparation to performing mitzvot, eating or the like.

7 In requesting mercy, for example, from another human being, one is effectively asking the person in power to change -- to change his/her emotions or his/her internal response to the situation. Alternatively, in support of the call for mercy, one may present new information about the matter or the person that demands a new consideration of the facts and the decision. Both these possible explanations of mercy are not conceivable in relation to God.

8 It should be noted that in the Talmud, the word rachamim (or a derivative term) is often used for prayer.

9 To illustrate the distinction between these two models, consider the call to check mezuzot. when people have misfortune. To the mystic, a proper or improper mezuzah affects the olam hanistar thus the call for investigation. The focus is clearly on the mezuzah. Within the second model, the individual is the focus. Cheshban hanefesh, personal reflection on self, is the priority. Proponents of this model may, therefore, actually discourage individuals from checking mezuzot as this may redirect people from focusing on “checking themselves.”

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