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.
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.
Originally, according to yet another midrash, God strode the earth when it was pristine. After their sin, Adam and Eve "heard the sound of God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day" (Genesis 3:8) and they hid in terror. The Tabernacle recovers but a fraction of that presence, now restricted to the Tent of Meeting, where Moses alone "would hear the Voice addressing him" (Numbers 7:89). Rashi comments on the unusual reflexive form of the verb midaber--addressing--saying that God was actually speaking to God's self and Moses simply overheard. The divine-human encounter is still hampered by estrangement. God is wary of betrayal.
The theological core of this vivid language is that we live in an imperfect world. God's remove flows from our constant abuse of the gift of human free will. Ignorance and arrogance induce us to commit acts that wreak havoc. The function of Judaism is to temper the demons within us and attune us to the vistas beyond us. The grandeur of an incomprehensible universe is not intended to satisfy our appetites. By giving us a center of gravity, the ritual and sacred texts, the community and culture of Judaism enable us to live our lives from the perspective of eternity.
I dare say that in theory we could accomplish all that on our own, but only to the extent that we could also write immortal poetry or compose great music. Yet when we are moved to give expression to our aesthetic sensibility, we readily turn to the masters. And they do not yield their beauty or wisdom without painstaking effort. Nothing of lasting value is achieved overnight, and that includes making of Judaism a work of art that ennobles our lives. As sometime seekers, we can do no better than rely on the fallible and multi-vocal mediation of those who have come closer to God than we have.