Naso: G-d's Will?

Most of my synagogue experience has been in Reform schuls.  Near the end of Shabbat services, the rabbi and/or cantor recites the “threefold benedictions of Torah” – the Birkat-Kohanim (Priestly Blessings/Benediction):   

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָֹה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

יָאֵר יְהוָֹה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

May the Lord shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.

יִשָּׂא יְהוָֹה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם:

May the Lord lift His Countenance to you and grant you peace.

This ritual complies with express instructions found in this week’s Torah portion, Naso 6:22-27.  G-d tells Moses to tell Aaron to bless the people with these words, and concludes, “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

As you might expect, a substantial body of rabbinic and other commentary exists seeking to understand why G-d chose these specific words and how they should be understood.   But whatever they might mean, they elicit a virtually uniform response from the congregants who hear them.  After each sentence, the congregation responds, “Ken Y’hee ratzon”  -- “May this be G-d’s will.”

This response suggests to me that most Reform Jews:

1) believe in the existence of G-d, who/that is

2) aware of them and of their actions, and who/that

3) bestows or withholds blessings accordingly to G-d’s will.  

Can we reasonably conclude that most Reform Jews do actually believe all of these things when so many otherwise express doubts about G-d (if they discuss G-d at all)? 

Let’s consider some possibilities to explain the “Ken Y’hee Ratzon” response:

1.  It’s simply a learned call-and-response performed automatically by long habit, facilitated by group participation, and without the pray-er(s) actually thinking about it or intending anything by it.  

This reason may be correct, but to adopt it assumes that pray-ers are mindless and will repeat something three times in succession (and with short breaks in between each) without any consideration of what is happening or whether it means anything to them.  Such an assumption is somewhat insulting.   

2.  The pray-er doesn’t believe, or doesn’t know whether, there is a G-d who/that meets the criteria I mention above, but since the (alleged) blessings are positive, there’s no harm in saying a form of “Amen” to them.”   (This might be considered a version of “Pascal’s Wager.”)   

This reason may also be correct, but it strikes me as susceptible to the opposite objection; it assumes too much.  How many pray-ers actually engage in probability theory/theology when they pray?

Which leaves a third possibility:

3.  The pray-er actually does, or is inclined to, believe that G-d exists, is aware of the pray-er, and grants or withholds blessings based on G-d’s “will” (judgments, assessment of behavior, etc)

I suspect that this reason is the correct one for most Reform Jewish congregants.   I think that the majority of Reform Jews do believe, to at least some extent, in Divinely-bestowed – and withheld! – blessings, even if they seldom think about that, discuss it, or – most importantly -- guide their lives in reflection of that belief.

Yet, to live an authentic and meaningful life requires, in part, actively living according to one’s beliefs.  In this case, it would also seem in everyone (who believes in Divinely-bestowed and withheld blessings)’s self-interest to live a life that merits G-d’s “will” to bestow blessings! 

In most aspects of our lives, including work and childraising, we don’t just hope that good things will happen.  We don’t subscribe to fatalism, that is, that whatever will happen will happen regardless of what we do or don’t do.  Instead, we act in ways that we expect will make good things happen, or at least will warrant them happening.  

Judaism teaches that the same is true with Divine blessings.   For the most part, we have to earn them, not just sing a few Psalms of Praise at Services (note the word Service in "Services!") and hope that G-d is sufficiently flattered.  A “covenant” isn't "getting something for nothing."  

Fortunately, Judaism also holds that G-d is gracious to us -- "grace" meaning that we don't get exactly what we deserve; if we did, we would mostly deserve punishment.  The fact that we are still walking around and writing/reading this demonstrates that G-d is more merciful than meting out strict justice would warrant.   But, we don’t get a free pass either.   

So, the next time you hear the Priestly Benedictions and respond (three times)“May this Be G-d Will,” you might also ask yourself and G-d: “Do I deserve it?”  And if not, take action to do so.

According to the most fundamental tenets of Judaism, using your free will to conform your behavior to what you believe reflect's G-d's will  is G-d’s will!!!

Shabbat shalom.         

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb