The words of the priestly blessing are among the most resonant and familiar to us in all of Jewish tradition. Whether they are being pronounced by the kohanim themselves in synagogue, or invoked at the Friday-night table, or at a baby naming or wedding, they generate as much emotion as any string of 15 words anywhere in our tradition.
Even so, the precise meaning of some of the words is a little obscure. One of the more mysterious phrases, one which we assume isn’t to be taken literally, is “May God shine His face upon you.” What exactly does this blessing mean?
Our classical biblical commentators understood the phrase variously. Some, like Rashi and Abraham Ibn Ezra, understood the “shining of God’s face” as a metaphor for Divine favor, and that the blessing expresses the hope that God look upon our requests with favor and respond positively to them.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, however, explained the phrase in a very different way. For him, “May God shine His face upon you” means “May God fill your eyes with the light of His countenance, so that you may you be able to see the wonders of His Torah and the wonders of His deeds.” It’s a blessing that expresses the hope that we see things that are often hiding in plain sight right in front of our eyes.
Absent God’s special blessing, Sforno is teaching us, we may not ever perceive the wonders of the Torah. Even if we are living a life of Torah study and mitzvah observance, we still might find ourselves in the spiritual dark. The accumulation of Torah knowledge, he is telling us, does not in and of itself constitute religious enlightenment, and the technical fulfillment of Jewish law does not by itself guarantee personal righteousness or piety. There is, rather, another indispensible ingredient, a blessing that one needs to actively seek — the light of God’s countenance. This is the light through which (as we say at the conclusion of every Amidah prayer) God bestows upon us the love of kindness and of tzedakah, and blessing, and compassion, and peace. These are the elements of God’s light. And when — and only when — they infuse our study and our practice of God’s law, can the latter emerge from the darkness of aimless, directionless, perfunctory performance.
The same holds true, according to Sforno, about living in the natural world. When our eyes are not filled with the light of God’s countenance, we may technically behold the world but not perceive the wonders with which it is suffused. We can drive in the world, hike in it, enjoy its many fruits and still have little ultimate, transcendent appreciation for the gift that it is, for the stunning wondrousness that it possesses. Only when our eyes are filled with the light of God’s countenance do we gain the ultimate appreciation — the sort of appreciation that leads us to only take gently when we take, to lovingly preserve whenever we can, and to experience a sense of wonder and miracle even when we consume. Our earliest rabbis worked diligently to fill our eyes with this light of God’s countenance, creating for us a complex web of blessings to recite, each describing individual wonders of God’s creation in specific terms: Blessed are you God who brings forth bread from the earth, who creates the fruit of the tree, who made the great sea, who made fragrant herbs. These blessings are all designed to invite the light of God’s countenance to fill our eyes.
There are indeed so many things we can see only when the light of God’s countenance fills our eyes. Without the light, we look at the path that stretches from where we are to where we aspire to be, and we see only the obstacles. We see only the difficult professional and personal adjustments that the path of personal growth entails. But in the light, we don’t see a path strewn with obstacles. We see a road laden with opportunity.
Without God’s light, we see most other human beings as passing shadows, on the sidewalk or in the store, or even at work. But when we are blessed to have our eyes filled with the light of God’s countenance, we see that we’re surrounded by people of value, wisdom, humor, experiences and feelings. We see them as God sees them.
Thinking about the priestly blessing in this way, it is no wonder that our hearts spill over when we bestow this blessing upon someone we love.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.