Friday, June 27, 2008

Jewish Guilt

Several years ago my wife and I were having a Succah dinner at the home of some well meaning, modern orthodox, liberal, Evanston Jews. Much of the table talk revolved around national politics; the mal-administration of George Bush, the never ending war in Iraq, and the poor state of the economy. Here we were, I thought to myself, sitting in a succah, a symbolic gesture we Jews make annually, and at some inconvenience take our meals in the “succat shalom”. I couldn’t help but take note that zip was said about Israel, but so much was commented about the need for “Tikkun Olam”. To be sure, even if Israel hadn’t been in the news that particular week, nevertheless, the ongoing political-security issues are always present and lend themselves for on-going discussion. After all, where else, and how appropriate is it to speak of the existential future of Israel if not in the succat shalom. So trying to shift the conversation I was rebuffed with comments like: “not all of us need to obsess over Israel” and “don’t worry about Israel, they can take care of themselves”. I was shocked and disturbed less because of the rebuff but more because these were “modern orthodox” Jews who were treating Israel and her future in a most cavalier manner.

Those disturbing feelings were filed away as a means by which to deal with my denial until the Barak Hussein Obama campaign during the primaries began to heat up. In one of my phone conversations with my so called “modern orthodox” friend we cautiously veered on to the upcoming Illinois primary. I had urged my friend to vote for Hillary because Obama couldn’t be trusted on the issue of Israel’s future. My friend let me have it!!! “How dare I” she castigated me “put Israel’s future at the top of the list of considerations when evaluating a candidate”. “Israel”, my friend continued “is 60 years old and needs to ‘grow up’”. Its time, the reasoning went that Israel stopped depending on America and American Jews and depended more on “Hashem” and began fending for herself. Maybe I am na├»ve, maybe I am insular, and maybe I am so parochial that I can’t understand the campaign in terms other than Israel’s future first and foremost with every other consideration taking a second place.

I also flashed back to our discussion about tikkun olam in the succat shalom and realized that it isn’t me that’s off course, but all those liberal Jews out there who have a warped understanding of our history. I also recalled one of my posts on tikun olam entitled Atlas Shrugged:Tikun Olam and realized that I have no reason to feel guilty about my myopic vision of the centrality of Israel in history.

I also tried to imagine a world in which Israel was no longer a player. I wondered if my liberal friend considered a new world order because tikun olam required a bi-national state in place of Israel, where all people, Muslim and Jew could live in peace and harmony. Had she considered the implications of that arrangement? Israel would cease to exist, Muslims would be the majority, and Jews, well, doesn’t her vision of tikun olam trump all else. And what about the Jews of the Diaspora? What would be the quality of our lives? For me – it wouldn’t be worth living, but for her it would be the fulfillment of tikun olam and finally perhaps her Jewish guilt would be satiated.

I am however struggling to understand what motivates these self hating, guilt ridden Jews to plot a self destruct course. Why would well intentioned Jews organize a Jews for Obama organization, when Obama has no track record on Israel, has a Muslim name, and is closely associated with radical, anti-semitic nefarious characters such as Wright, Farakhan and Ayers, to mention a few. Obamas appearance and speech at AIPAC was all these liberals needed to assuage their conscience.

What I find insulting is some of the promotional items being used that have Obama’s name in Hebrew letters. I would have thought that it would have been more appropriate to have his name written with Yiddish spelling. After all it is sort of a galut mentality that drives these liberals. Wasn’t it the Yiddish speaking Jews of Europe who wanted to believe that they were only being relocated out of the ghettos, and that the camps were only transit centers!! Modern Hebrew is the language of heroes, of people who managed to take destiny into their own hands, who built a land despite all the odds, and who believe that Massada will not fall again.

This doesn’t sit very well with the twisted liberal Jewish mind, who believe that we have to stretch out our necks on the altar as Isaac so willingly did, all in the name obedience to a “loving” God. But what these liberal miscreants don’t understand is that Abraham, at the last minute decided not to go along with the death plan, but to change the course of history and to resoundingly negate this way of worshipping God. We won’t stretch our necks out on the altar of liberal political correctness, we won’t sacrifice Israel, weaken her or put her in harms way, but we will stand proud, turn our backs on the altar of self destruction and walk away from it and down the hill as Abraham our father taught us.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Muse: Korach 2008

“They gathered together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “it is too much for you! For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy and God is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God"?

Commentaries through the ages have tried to get to the core of the rebellion which Korach was staging against he leadership of Moses and Aaron. Was it Korach’s contention that since we were all at Sinai, everyone heard the “word” of God and thus everyone is holy and not in need of any intercessors? Or perhaps it was his position that since all the Hebrews heard the word of God why should everyone but the Levites be excluded from work in the Temple? Perhaps Korach’s party was seeking an end to the special status of the Priests that was separating the people from contact with God? While all of these suggestions are valid the heart of the rebellion can also be understood by examining the perception of “holiness” within the context of the rebellion.

Interestingly, two giants that took opposing positions relative to understanding “holiness” were Prof. Yeshayhu Leibovitz and Harav Kook. While Prof. Leibovitz had a profound respect for Harav Kook he disagreed with him as to the true meaning of kedusha. Leibovitz understood kedusha to be “sociological-transcendental” as apposed to Harav Kook who saw it as Immanent-Ontological”.

According to Leibovitz, kedusha is the result of the normative performance and observance of halacha. It is the observance which sets the Jewish people apart and makes us holy. For example, if one were to wish to make a room holy , he would have to perform certain rites, and fulfill certain obligations for it to be considered holy. Rules would have to be established that would limit who can enter the room, when it can be accessed and by whom. Similarly a book takes on holiness by the reverence to which it is accorded. People handle it carefully, they kiss it they don’t let it drop to the floor and they don’t pile on to it books of lesser importance. The holy man is someone who stands out, who doesn’t conform to the norms of society whether it is in dress, haircut or other observable behaviors.
“Holiness” of the Harav Kook variation, immanent-ontological, assumes that the object itself has innate holiness and is independently holy regardless if someone so designates it as such. If a person doesn’t accord a certain behavior to a holy place or object, the objects intrinsic holiness isn’t diminished, rather the person becomes diminished.

It is around these two polar concepts of holiness that the entire brouhaha of Korach’s rebellion revolves. Leibovitz interprets holiness within the context of it being up to man to deem something Holy. He basis this on the parsha of tzitzit when the text says “v’asitem et kol mitzvotai v’hetem kedoshim…” Holiness is contingent upon man’s behavior. Holiness is a function of obligation and performance. Korach, rejected this premise by saying that a priori the entire community is holy, whether or not mitzvoth are performed. Harav Kook rejects this interpretation of Korach’s rebellion and claims that it was their rejection of holiness as immanent-ontological that was their sin. They sought to break out of the intrinsic nature of the proscribed holiness by appropriating holiness to areas that weren’t part of the master plan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lustiger and Yoselle: Most Unusual Men

A couple of days ago I posted a piece which was made available through NPR. Usually I find little exciting coming out of NPR, however this piece on Cardinal Lustiger was intriguing. Intriguing, because it’s been several days since I read the piece and I still can’t free myself from thinking about this wonderfully spiritual but tormented man. This isn’t the first time I have run across this phenomenon, a time bomb set during and as a result the holocaust, but not “going off” till decades later. Saul Friedlander, writes of his personal odyssey being raised as a Catholic in order to avoid the Nazis and dealing with his belief system after learning who he really was and his conflicted life in Israel as a Jew. And there were others prominent in the media who while born Jewish, as a result of the WWII circumstances, were raised as Christians only to find out decades later, like Madeleine Albrite.

However, reading this story of Cardinal Lustiger triggered a recollection of a story told by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach thirty five years ago. The story was about a man called Yoselle who was raised as a Catholic and later became a priest. His given name however, was Joe. His mother, a holocaust survivor, met and married her liberator, an American GI who was a devout Catholic and who wanted her to adopt his faith. Their child Joe was never to know of his Jewish roots and so he was raised. On her death bed she told her son the truth. The information that Joe received from his dying mother was the worst news he could have received, because it so complicated his life. Thinking of himself as a devout man in the service of God he felt complete, a whole person. Now however, he was living a life of doubt, questioning who he was, and exploring his sense of responsibility and destiny. Pressing questions like who was he really, who are his people, what is his true history, and what is his destiny were questions that plagued him to the point where he could no longer see himself as the whole person whom he thought he was. After much soul searching, Joe, as the story goes, decided to abandon the life he led. He left America without any possessions, leaving “Joe” behind and assuming the identity of Yoselle in Israel where he would live his life as a devout Jew as his ancestors from Cracow did.

When I first heard the story I was moved by it, perhaps because of my own youthful gullability or perhaps it was because of the seductive and charismatic personality of the story teller, Rabbi Carlebach. And that’s what he was – a first rate story teller who was able to move people, thousands of people who would hear him in concert. Fast forward thirty five years. I am no longer the gullible young man, nor is Reb Shlomo alive. But his story is! It’s alive, because it wasn’t a fictitious story; it was a story of real human drama. I sat back and listened to the story again and again over the past couple of days and I understand now for the first time how true the story was. Yes, the Saul Friedlanders and Madeleine Albrights of this very cruel and twisted world exist, but so do the Yoselles and the Lustigers.

Cardinal Lustiger was a terribly tormented man spiritually—the very thought of him considering a move to Israel as Joe did is evidence of that. I weep for him and for all the others who by no choice of their own became the long term victims of a world too soon forgotten. No one can judge Cardinal Lustiger’s choices and spiritual values that he lived by. He must have been a very lonely man, very pained, tormented and troubled knowing that his own flesh and blood was martyrs of the Shoah while he lived as a church father. This is why the Kaddish was so appropriately said over him. “Yehi Zichro Mevurach”

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Most Unusual Man

NPR radio, Saturday morning 15 March 2008:

"There used to be a joke in Paris, what is the difference between the chief
rabbi in France and the Cardinal of Paris? The Cardinal speaks Yiddish!

Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger was buried yesterday; he died this week of
cancer. He was born almost 81 years ago to Polish parents who ran a dress
shop in Paris. When the German army marched in his parents sent him and his
sister into hiding with a Catholic family in Orleans. Their mother was
captured and sent to Auschwitz.

In 1999 as Cardinal of Paris, Jean Marie Lustiger took part in reading of
the names of France's day of remembrance of Jews who had been deported and
murdered. He came to the name Gesele Lustiger, paused, teared and said, my
mama. The effect in France during a time of revived anti-Semitism was

He was just 13 and in hiding when he converted to Catholicism, not to escape
the Nazis he always said, because no Jew could escape by conversion, and not
of trauma, he said.. Among his most controversial observations, I was born
Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me the
vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyem. That is my hope and I
believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.

There were a great number of rabbis who consider his conversion a betrayal.
Especially after so many European Jews had so narrowly escaped extinction.
Cardinal Lustiger replied, to say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying
my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as
all other members of my family that were butchered in Auschwitz and other

He confessed to a biographer that he had a spiritual crisis in the 1970's
provoked by persistent anti-Semitism in France. He studied Hebrew, and
considered emigrating. He said I thought that I had finished what I had to
do here, he explained and I might find new meaning in Israel. But just at
that time the pope appointed him bishop of Orleans. He found purpose he said
in the plight of immigrant workers. Then he was elevated to Cardinal.
The Archbishop of Paris. Jean Marie Lustiger was close to the Pope. They
shared a doctrinal conservatism. He also battled bigotry and
totalitarianism. For years Cardinal Lustiger's name was among those who was
considered to succeed John Paul. Without putting himself forth, the Cardinal
joked that few things would bedevil bigots more than a Jewish Pope. They
don't like to admit it he said, but what Christians believe, they got -
through Jews.

The funeral for Cardinal Lustiger began at Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday,
with the chanting of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead."

A Muse: Shelach L'cha 2008

“Your children will roam in the wilderness for forty years and bear your guilt, until the last of your carcasses in the wilderness. Like the number of days that you spied out the Land, forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities-forty years- and you shall comprehend straying from me. I God have spoken-if I shall not do this to this entire evil assembly that gathers against me! In the wilderness they shall cease to be, and there shall they die.” (Numbers 14:33-35)

People, when reflecting back on their life can point to certain events, seminal events which impacted intensely on them and influenced some of the outcomes in their life. Sometimes, while reflecting on our lives we aren’t even aware of the events which so profoundly directed us. At times, the impact is on a subconscious level, other times we can point to it. The same is true for the life of a nation.

The collective memory of a people while sharing some similarities with that of an individual is also very different. With an individual, it is the one person that is responding to a particular event or chain of events. With a nation, there are multiple numbers of people involved and while all of them are responding to any given event that has impacted the nation, each one will have a different response. This however, when woven together forms the nature and character of the collective memory of the nation.

It can be argued that the Dor Hamidbar, the generation of Hebrews destined to roam the desert for forty years impacted on the national psyche of its people and perhaps helped shape the character of the Jewish people. Our sacred texts and literature which evolved and influenced by national events such as the forty year treck in the wilderness characterized this period as a beautiful time, a spiritual, mystical era where the relationship between God and his people was ideal. The well known expression “chesed n’ureich”, the “affection of your youth”, characterizing the Dor Hamidbar comes from Jeremiah 2:2 “Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem saying: thus says the Lord: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals (bride) how you went after me in the desert in a land that was not sown”.

Jeremiah reflected on the days of our sojourn in the wilderness not as a test of the nation’s will power or determination, but as a romanticized period, a love fest between Israel and God. Midrashim picked up on this theme, embellishing it as evidenced by the Mechilta. Later, Rashi (10th century) too makes use of the Jeremiah text and builds on the Mechilta. The Ramban (13th century) makes use of this theme when he explains a verse in Deuteronomy (33:3). The romanticized version of the forty year wilderness trek took on a life of its own as it trickled down over the centuries through our sacred texts and rabbinic literature.

Our rabbis built on this foundation a notion that comprehensive Torah study can only be accomplished by those who live in an ideal environment. That is to say that the study of Torah can’t be optimally fulfilled unless the student lives in economic conditions favorable to study and where he will be free of worrying about a livelihood as the Hebrews were in the wilderness. Rabbi Yonatan Eibshitz (18th cebtury) elaborates on the ideal wilderness environment where the Hebrews were absolutely worry free, food was guaranteed and all their needs were met by God. All they had to do was study Torah. (Sefer Yaarot D’vash, part 2, 16th drash)

Harav Hayim M’volozhin (18th – 19th century) followed in this tradition, but with a unique and remarkable twist. It wasn’t the ideal conditions of the wilderness which created the environment by which the Hebrews could study, but the reverse; by virtue of their absolute giving of themselves to the study of Torah intensity and with total abnegation was the ideal conditions created. The study of Torah in the wilderness was their assurance of survival, without which their survival was in question. This theme as expressed in Nefesh Hachayim, and directed against Hassidut, became the last word in Lithuanian Yeshivot and became the holy grail of his yeshiva,Yeshivat Volozhin.

The “mitnagdim” proponents buttressed by the Lithuanian Yeshiva movement which has had an enormous impact on the quality of yeshiva students, their life styles and their politics in the twentieth and twenty first century was indirectly created as a result of the collective memory of our people who understood the generation of Dor Hamidbar in terms of “chesed n’ureich”.

Interesting, how a painful and difficult forty year trek through the desert with inadequate food and water can be channeled into the national collective memory of its people as a magical and mystical time resulting from the twist of Jeremiah’s reading of history, giving credence to the Israseli song “hakol Biglal Masmer Katan.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Muse: B'ha-alotecha 2008

“And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them around the tent….An it came to pass that when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more. But there remained two men in the camp, the name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested on them; and they were of them that were recorded, but had not gone out unto the tent; and they prophesied in the camp. And there ran a young man and told Moses and said: ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’. And Joshua the son of Nun answered and said ‘shut them in’. And Moses said ‘art thou jealous for my sake’? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit on them!”

This weeks portion as well as the three subsequent ones (Shelach, Korach and Hullat) relates the record of the Israelites lack of faith, the Dor Hamidbar, the Generation of the Wilderness and Moses’ attempt at dealing with the problem. Moses was succumbing to the sheer weight of dealing with his people without the help, advice and guidance of others. He understands that effective leadership can’t be achieved by fiat but by co-opting others in to the process. Chapter 11:16 sets up the means and method by which Moses would continue his leadership through delegation by convening 70 of the elders in the Tent of Meeting and sharing the burden of leadership and governance.
Rarely however, does any plan run smoothly. In verse 27 of the same chapter we read of the incident of Eldad and Medad, two men not included in the seventy, but sincere in their intentions and independently prophesied. Joshua seeing them as renegades and unauthorized to serve in the capacity of prophets appealed to Moses to have them silenced, by force if necessary. Moses resisted Joshua’s request, rejecting rule by oligarchy and embracing pluralism.
This incident provides us with a lesson by which we can profile good leadership and the use of power verses poor leadership and the abuse of power. Joshua, it would appear, was the quintessential bureaucrat, following the rules to the letter, conservative in thought and actions, not comfortable with change or allowing for freedom of thought and speech even if it was for the general good. Moses on the other hand, was flexible, willing to experiment, interested in propagating freedom of expression even if it was misconstrued by others as a threat to his leadership. He showed strength of character, vision and daring in welcoming the prophesy of these two men, not seated with the seventy in the tent of meeting, but nevertheless prophets in their own right.
It appears that the pluralism as expressed within American Judaism contrasts dramatically with the singular monochromatic image of Judaism as permitted by the Ministry of Religion in Israel. How much more textured and genuine would Jewish practice and belief be in Israel if they espoused that which was taught by Moses.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Muse: Shavuot

The giving of the Law, the major event in our religious history is depicted in the Bible with high drama as the scene of the Hebrews encamped at the foot of the mountain unfolds and is accompanied by “thunder and lightening…and the sound of the shofar”. We have been taught that the event described in Exodus 19 was the singular event marking the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. However it appears that by reading the text more critically it seems that in addition to Mount Sinai there was another place where our ancestors received the Law, at Marah in the Wilderness of Shur.

Three days after our ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds they traveled through the Wilderness of Shur, and not having found water they complained (the first of many). They came to Marah and there they found water, however it wasn’t potable due to its bitterness. Moses crying out to God for help is shown a tree which he throws into the water and miraculously it is sweetened. In this very same verse in which he sweetens the water the text continues “there He established for the nation a decree and an ordinance and there He tested it”. (Exodus Chapter 15 verse 25) The test was the bitter waters, but because they weren’t of strong faith, they were given the Law. The proof that they were tested by God at Marah can be validated if we skip ahead to verse 17 when the Hebrews arrived at Elim which is described aas a sort of oasis which had 12 springs of water and seventy date palms. Had God wanted He could have had them there sooner and avoid the entire incident of Marah.

After giving the Law at Marah Moses warns the Hebrews in verse 26:

“If you hearken diligently to the voice of God and do what is just in His eyes, give ear to His commandments and observe all His decrees than any of the diseases that I placed in Egypt I will not bring upon you for I am God your healer”.

This promise of good health, the bitter waters and the relationship to Egypt brings to mind the first plague in which the Egyptians had no water to drink because the waters were smitten with blood.

In reality, the giving of the Law at Marah was the beginning of the process of the dramatic pageantry leading up to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Chazal understood the connection between Marah and Sinai and identified those laws which were given at Marah. Ten laws were given at Marah against the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The seven Noachide Laws and three additional laws: shabbat, dinin and parental respect. (Sanhedrin 56b)

There is a midrash Michilta (B’shalach, 1) which says that the Hebrews were in the desert for three days without studying Torah and therefore they rebelled against God. Moses settled the issues by having them study Torah on Shabbat, Tuesdays and Thursdays. In other words three days weren’t to go by without the study of Torah. It appears from this midrash that the Hebrews had received the Law in Marah. The Mechilta d’rebe Yishmael also draws a correlation between Marah and Sinai, inferring that Marah was the prelude to the giving of the Law at Sinai.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

All in the Name of Halacha

For as long as there has been “organized religion” there have been their critics. Those who opposed “organized religion” offered cogent arguments ranging from the banal to the sublime. Critics have argued that it is the "organized religions” that are responsible for so much bloodshed and war over the course of human history. It was “organized religion” that was responsible for the dehumanization of cultures foreign to their faith system; development of concepts and principles such as manifest destiny; collusion with colonialism with the intent of dominating other cultures; as well as the wholesale murder of those who didn’t share in Christian values and faith. Others pointed out the moral and spiritual bankruptcy exhibited by organized religions.

I have always been sympathetic to these arguments, but somehow keeping Judaism out of the equation for two reasons: Judaism isn’t a religion but a remarkably profound cultural statement encompassing, but not limited to or by religious values. Judaism has always appeared to be the victim rather than the perpetrator.

These two points of reference eliminating Judaism from the equation is no longer relevant nor has it been relevant for many years. What has changed the equation is the State of Israel. As a student, I as well as many others prided ourselves that as a people we didn’t populate the prisons of America. Jews for the most part weren’t alcoholics, drug users or dealers, pimps, thieves or murderers. Enter Israel, and the Zionist quest for normalizing the Jewish people and the equation has profoundly changed. The Jewish people have become like every other people. Israeli prisons are loaded with every conceivable kind of convict from the highly respected white collar criminals to the lowest of the low-pedophiles.

In a perverse sort of way all of this is not only understandable but forgivable. After all, it is living proof that the Zionist luminaries and ideologues like A.D. Gordon, Max Nordau, Leo Pinsker, Berl Katznelson and others were vindicated. The normalization of the Jews has been accomplished. Perhaps it was unavoidable, because in a democratic state these anomalies exist. Important to note however is that these marginal anomalies are exceptions rather than the rule; furthermore these behaviors aren’t institutionalized, but the acts of individuals, unlike in other cultures where anti-social behaviors were institutionalized i.e. anti-semitism.

“Organized religion”, however, has proven these Zionist thinkers right. They are no different than any other “organized religion”. What has saved Judaism from the fate of “organized religion” hitherto has been the fact that while it may have been organized it wasn’t institutionalized and secondly, it was virtually powerless without a state. (In the first and second commonwealths we saw the corruption of the priests as well as the barbarous behavior at times of our ancestors. Our prophets were witness to and wrote about it repeatedly). Israel having institutionalized “organized religion” has given them the power by which they can abuse not only the system who by virtue they exist but also individuals.

The details of the conversion issue important as it is and affecting so many in Israelis isn’t the point of this essay. These issues were addressed previously in mumerous essays where I maintained then as I do today that there is no halachic basis whatsoever for rescinding a conversion. What does concern me is the victimization of innocent Jewish converts and their families by a group of ruthless thugs intent on having their way, no matter the cost to others, hiding behind the sanctimonious and corrupted veil of halacha buttressed by their aggregation of power ceded to them by the state.

In retrospect it would appear that the religious component of Judaism is no different than any other “organized religion”. While other “organized religions” exploited, killed and tortured (mentally and physically) all in the name of Christ, our rabbis would probably have been guilty of their share of exploitation and corruption (had they the power and opportunity) as they are today, all in the name of halacha.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Muse: Naso 2008

“And God Spoke to Moses saying. Speak to Aaron and his sons saying: So shall you bless the children of Israel, saying to them: May God bless you and safeguard you. May God illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you. May God lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you. Let them place My name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them”. (Numbers 6: 22-27)

Notable in this week’s portion is the priestly blessing, bracketed however, by verses 22 and 27 which are contradictory. In verse 22 God instructs Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites. However verse 27 indicates that the blessings origination point is God and not the priests. So are these blessing the domain of the priests or God?

Finding resolution to this quandary is in exploring the nature and intent of these blessings. The Abarbanel understands the first blessing as a reference to the physical dimension. Fundamentally, and as a prerequisite to all else, is man’s need to be protected from physical harm. This the Abarbanel infers from the usage of the word Lishmor, which means to watch or guard, usually in a physical sense. The second blessing references the spiritual side of man; seeking to come out of the dark into the light resulting in God illuminating His presence. The third blessing is that God shall not show his anger with the Israelites, and that there should be peace. The assumption is that the condition for peace is that there is acceptance by God of his people, absence of anger and only under those conditions can there be peace.

The Abarbanel suggests that in this third blessing there is another layer: While God can tolerate man’s non compliance with God, He has difficulty tolerating man’s non compliance with man. Thus, as a prerequisite for peace man has to be in harmony with man. The Abarbanel sites the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) regarding the convert who came before Rabban Gamliel and asked why at times the text states that God “shows favor” and at other times the text states that “God doesn’t show” favor (Deuteronomy 10:17). R’ Yossi Hacohen explains with the following parable: Someone borrows money from a friend and takes an oath on the life of the king that he will repay the debt. When he defaults on payment he asks the King for his pardon. The king responds by saying, “don’t worry about how I feel and how I’ve been insulted-I hold no grudges, but try and seek forgiveness from him who you’ve defaulted on”. The laws governing the relationship between man and God are powerful but dexterous which guarantees God’s “yisa panim”. The laws governing man’s relationship with man is different and once man violates the trust of man, the “yisa panim” of God is tested. Man cannot receive God’s blessings without first being at peace with his fellow man.

Rabbi Ashlich, a 16th century French Scholar agrees with the Abarbanel with some emendations, the most important being that the second blessing is a requisite for the third. “May God illuminate His countenance” refers to man being open to receive the spiritual gifts as well as appreciate the need for maintaining and improving the social fabric of society. What is revealed is a series of blessings that graduate from the fundamental physical to the spiritual and only then to the sublime state of peace. Note also that in a literary sense the blessings graduate from the shortest verse to the longest verse for the third blessing. Having said this, the contradiction earlier sited still remains, buttressed by the Tanchuma (Numbers 6, 22) which states that it is God and not the priests who will bless the Israelites.

Rabbi Ashlich maintains that the task of the priest wasn’t to bless or pray for blessings. His role was to prepare the Israelites so that they could become the receptors of the blessings. According to Ashlich it is man’s obligation to prepare themselves and their society. God’s blessings can only be present in a benevolent society, a society open and receptive to receiving God’s blessings. In the words of Rabbi Isaac Aroma the author of the Akedat Yitzchak, as long as the ground isn’t tilled and sown properly, the dew and rain will have little or no benefit.

Peace, to be achieved must have the proper foundation as Rabbi Aroma points out. It isn’t a condition, but a value we all have to seek and which can’t be achieved through miracles, but via natural ways. The more we work at it by resisting and renouncing that which is anathema to man’s welfare the sooner we will be able to receive the peace we so desire. The question we must ask ourselves however is how do we know what is anathema to man!