Reprinted from the Jewish Theological Seminary Web site.

In older Jewish cemeteries, you will often come upon a tombstone decorated with a pair of hands. They are often juxtaposed near the top, arched in a triangle with fingers noticeably apart. The symbol of hands positioned to administer the priestly blessing designates the grave of a Kohen, a putative descendant of Aaron, the first high priest. As ancient Jewish art often does, the image embodies midrash in visual form. And since the priestly benediction is the centerpiece of this week's parashah--portion-- (6:24-26), I wish to reflect on the far-reaching meaning of this midrash.

More Shabbat Features

When blessing the congregation of worshipers, first in the Temple and later in the synagogue, priests, according to the rabbis, raised their hands and spread their fingers in a prescribed manner. The midrash is attached to the introductory phrase: "Thus shall you [Aaron and his sons] bless the people of Israel (6:23)," because the force of the wording conveys not only precision but illustration. The rabbis imagine a moment of public protest. Israel challenges God: "What need do we have of a priestly benediction? It is Your blessing that we seek and which indeed we have direct access to, as it is written: 'Look down [God] from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us'"(Deuteronomy 26:15).

Sensitive to the implicit contradiction, God strikes a conciliatory note: "Although I have instructed the priests to bless you, I am with them and bless you. And it is for this reason that the priests spread their hands, as if to signal that I am right behind them." To reinforce the point, the midrash takes recourse to the Song of Songs, whose erotic language, for the Rabbis, depicted the intensity of the relationship between God and Israel. In the coy and elusive figure of the lover furtively approaching his beloved--"There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the window, peering through the lattice" (2:9)--they find an allusion to the symbolism of the priests' parted fingers. In truth, the priests are little more than the lattice which frames and mediates the experience of the divine (Tanhuma, Naso, 8).

Artfully, our midrash has articulated a sentiment with which we moderns can readily identify: What is the need for institutionalized religion? Would it not be preferable for each one of us to call upon God directly in accordance with our individual tastes and beliefs? The apparel of others just doesn't quite fit. The vast literature and complex ritual of Judaism often leave us searching for the holy. The voice of the midrash appeals because it is honestly ambivalent.

To begin with, it acknowledges at the dedication of the Tabernacle and the inauguration of its priesthood that the unmediated experience of God would be of a higher order. The murmuring of Israel echoes a less formal and exclusive era more hospitable to diversity and participation. The midrash concedes as well that the authority of the priests is contingent and not absolute. Should the fingers ever close, eliminating God's presence, the priests would become dispensable. Elsewhere, the Talmud insists that wherever in the Bible you come across a demonstration of God's power, you will also find by its side a manifestation of God's humility (Megillah 31a). The combination is for human emulation. Religious authority must be moderated by inner constraint.

The insights of related midrashim amplify on our conundrum. Human waywardness alienates God. In a particularly graphic image, one midrash speculates on God's progressive withdrawal in consequence of recurring acts of human evil. With Adam's sin, God took refuge in the first firmament. With that of Enoch, in the second. With that of the generation of the flood, in the third. The builders of the Tower of Babel drove God yet further away to the fourth firmament. The Egyptians in the days of Abraham, to the fifth. The Sodomites, to the sixth, and finally the Egyptians, after the death of Joseph, impelled God to hide in the outermost reaches of the universe, in the seventh and highest firmament.