Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Every once in a while we hear a story about a lottery winner whose fate takes a drastic turn for the worse as a result of his or her newfound riches. And we pity such unfortunate people as we say to ourselves, “If only we would be so lucky, we would do a much better job of managing the windfall.” But the truth is that coping with our blessings may be a very challenging thing indeed.
According to one of the most important 19th-century Torah commentators, this is actually one of the messages contained in the Priestly Blessing found in this week’s Torah portion of Naso (and which many of us heard intoned in synagogue over the Shavuot holiday).
The Kohanim, the priests, are bid in every generation to pronounce upon the Jewish People a blessing that begins: “The Lord bless you and protect you”.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin explains as follows:
“THE LORD BLESS YOU: This blessing is directed at Everyman, giving him the blessing that he needs… the Torah scholar for his learning, the businessman for his financial success…”
But being bothered by the obvious question of what further protection will be needed if we are already promised blessing, he continues:
“AND PROTECT YOU: Because every blessing needs protection lest it become a trap for a person. A Torah scholar needs protection from pride, haughtiness and bringing God’s name into disrepute etc. The entrepreneur needs guardianship so that his wealth not bring him evil…every area of blessing has a requisite protection.”
The insight is stunning. Almost no blessing constitutes unadulterated good. Just about all good brings us face to face with new obstacles that must be navigated and overcome. What we call blessings are really potentialities. They bring us higher up the ladder, but at the same time give us further to fall. What this means is that it all depends of what we do with it.
This explains a seemingly puzzling statement in Tractate Sucah of the Babylonian Talmud: “The greater the man, the stronger his evil impulse.” People naturally endowed with charisma, leadership ability, athletic talent, intellectual acumen, etc., at the same time face unique challenges and dangers. They could do so much good, but they could also do so much evil and cause so much damage. And on the flip side of the coin, people with less potential for good, also possess less potential for bad.
But still, despite the danger of blessings, the Kohanim are instructed to raise their hands as they stand in front of the congregation and to invoke Heaven’s blessings upon us. We must embrace God’s blessing, and strive to maximize them. Potential for good must never be shirked. It is with these blessings that we can make ourselves and our world better.
But we must also be aware of the tremendous challenges they place in our paths. It is when we invest the energy to successfully navigate the potential dark sides of our blessings that their transformational power increases exponentially.
It’s never easy. May God bless us … and protect us.
Pronounced: shah-voo-OTE (oo as in boot), also shah-VOO-us, Origin: Hebrew, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, falls in the Hebrew month Sivan, which usually coincides with May or June.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.