Ultimate blessings

Ultimate blessings


In this week’s portion, Naso (Numbers 4:21″“7:89), Aaron and his sons are instructed to bless the People of Israel and they are given a formulaic blessing that is still used in synagogue services, borrowed by parents to bless their children on Friday nights and offered to brides before their weddings. Perhaps this is the origin of offering God’s blessing, but it is far from the only instance.

Last Shabbat, the second day of Shavuot, we read Megillat Ruth, the Book of Ruth. Throughout the Book of Ruth, the characters often offer blessings to each other. When Boaz arrives in Bethlehem, he greets the reapers with the blessing, “The Lord be with you!” and we are told that the reapers respond, “The Lord bless you!” (Ruth 2:5) While the language of the megillah might seem antiquated and quaint, it is not far from our everyday usage. How often do we say or hear someone say “bless you” or “God bless you” when someone sneezes? Irrespective of that custom or its origin, what is meant when someone says “God bless you”? More to the point, what blessings are we seeking from God?

In difficult times we are often counseled to count our blessings, as if they are easily identifiable and numerable. Ask people what their blessings are and they are likely to respond by saying their health, their children, or that they have a job and a home. These are truly blessings. Often we thank God for our blessings when we see what others do not have. Volunteering in a homeless shelter might elicit a personal prayer of thanks for having a home. Watching news of a natural disaster or a tragic accident might cause us to be thankful for the blessing of being safe. But what are the blessings we seek from God? Are we to stand daily with an innumerable list, or must we choose only three from a preordained list? Is there an ultimate blessing we should seek?

Each month, our tradition offers us an expanded list of blessings that we seek from God. On the Shabbat preceding the new month we recite Birkat HaHodesh, the blessing of the new month. We ask that God bring this new month with blessings for us. Among those blessings are “a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be filled for the good.”

The list seems a bit long (even when we are not standing listening to it in the synagogue). The Hafetz Hayim, R’ Yisrael Meir Hakohen, commenting on the enumerations of blessings in Birkat HaHodesh, noted that “fear of heaven” is repeated. He suggested that after being blessed with wealth and honor, one needs to be blessed again with fear of heaven. Looking at his teaching, one could conclude that sometimes what we see as blessings, wealth, and honor, may turn out not to be such blessings, hence the need to be re-blessed with “fear of heaven.” That is the problem with such lists. We often do not know or cannot know what is a blessing. If we try to list all our wishes, we risk either including what ought to be excluded or excluding something we should include.

We are left with a quandary. What blessings should we seek? What is a true blessing?

The formula found in Naso offers us a look at what a true blessing is. Aaron and his sons are told to bless the people with these words: “The Lord bless you and protect you. The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you shalom.”

Included in this priestly blessing is God’s protection, grace, and shalom. But the formula and the order of the blessings hint at a deeper understanding of God’s blessings. In Hebrew, the verses of the blessing increase in number from three to five to seven words. The final blessing, the crescendo, brings the formula to a close with the blessing of shalom. Our sages noticed the build up to shalom and remarked on its significance. The Sifre, an early rabbinic midrash, quotes Rabbi Elazar Hakappar, who taught that shalom is great because all the blessings are only sealed/concluded with shalom.

Shalom is often translated as peace, but such a translation robs the Hebrew term of its fullness. Shalom means more than the cessation of hostilities. From its Hebrew root shin-lamed-mem (shalem) shalom conveys wholeness. It speaks of an inner and outer peace. Shalom ultimately means harmony with oneself, the world, and God.

Among the simple statements of wisdom of our people is the teaching of Simon ben Zoma (Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1), “Who is a rich man? He who is happy with his portion.” Ben Zoma helps us understand that wealth is not a function of one’s bank account but a mindset. The same may be said about spirit as well. Wealth of spirit is a mindset. We are enriched when we have achieved inner and outer harmony in our lives, when we are at peace with ourselves and our world. That is why God’s ultimate blessing is shalom. It is the greatest blessing we can ask for or give. That is why on the ultimate day we offer the ultimate blessing: Shabbat shalom.