Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av) will be marked this weekend, August 10th. This is the annual commemoration of the destruction of the first Temple by Babylon, and that of the second Temple by Rome (more about it in my post: One Day She Will Remember Her Shame No More).
The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC was a critical step in hiding God’s Faces from His people. From that point on we started perceiving our relationship with Him, for the most part, as that of a nation subject to punishment: destruction, exile and the severing of direct communication with our Father. During Tisha B’Av, prayers of lamentation and mourning are carried throughout synagogues worldwide. In most of them, people will sit on the floor and read the book of Lamentation, which describes the horrors of Jerusalem’s destruction.
The Aaronic Blessing
The common perception is that salvation and redemption will only come fully to Israel with the coming of the Messiah, and for that to happen the Temple has to be rebuilt, the renewed and the ministry of the priests restored.
The Aaronic Blessing is the most ancient Biblical text found so far. Silver plates dated to the end of first Temple period, which apparently served as amulets, were found in a burial cave in Jerusalem. One of them is adorned with the verses of the blessing, in a format much like that one found in Numbers 6.
The plates are kept today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
Every morning, the Blessing is pronounced in synagogues. And since 1970, twice a year (during Pesach and Sukkot) it turns into a mass event. Hundreds of kohanim (priests), who can trace their lineage back to Aaron’s family, arrive at the Western Wall, raise their hands in worship and proclaim the prayer in front of thousands of Jews who wish to receive the blessing.
Multitudes at the Wall during the annual proclamation of the Aaronic Blessing
The blessing is proclaimed while the priest stretches up his hands, spreading his fingers in a unique gesture. Some claim that only Aaron’s descendants can spread their fingers in such fashion. I’m not sure there is scientific ground for this claim, but various rules and prohibitions have developed throughout history surrounding this arm raising and finger spreading.
During the filming of Star Trek, the producer wanted Dr. Spock to accompany his Vulcan blessing of “live long and prosper” with some hand gesture. Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish actor playing Spock, grew up in an orthodox family and was familiar with the priestly finger spreading. He suggested it to the producer, who gladly accepted the idea and turned it into the “Vulcan Salute”, which have become one of the symbols most identified with the series.
“Koolulam” is a social-musical initiative, centered around mass singing events. Large groups of non-professionals come together to form a powerful musical creation. The first Orthodox song recorded in such fashion is that of the Aaronic Blessing (Koolulam – Aaronic Blessing. You may need to wait a few minutes until the add is over).
What Does the Blessing Actually Say?
“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His Faces shine upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His Faces (not ‘countenance’) towards you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).
In the various translations, for some reason, the same Hebrew word that appears in both verse 25 and 26 is translated in different ways. The Hebrew speaks about Faces (yes, in the plural), not about “countenance” or “presence”. The original Hebrew text does not use the word “presence”, not even once. When the root of this word does appear, it is never in the sense of presence. Those verses that we all quote when we speak about being in His presence, always speak about God’s Faces in the original Hebrew.
Does It Matter?
O, yes! There is a difference between presence and face. I can be in someone’s presence, yet with my back turned towards him. Being in someone’s presence does not require looking up to his face, or into his eyes. Moses wasn’t just in God’s presence, he saw Him Faces to faces.
What are God’s Faces? Or better yet, who is His Faces? And why is it that such a significant part of it is hidden from the Jewish people, from the whole world in fact, so much so that even the word itself is mistranslated? (I elaborate about it in my book “His Faces” and my post Faces or a Mask?).
This coming weekend, many in our nation will lament, but will they remember why that punishment came upon us? Will they truly seek His Faces? We can pray that as they daily proclaim the Aaronic Blessing, something ancient will stir deep down in their dull spirit, and wake up. That we will desire to see His Jewish Faces, until this fast of the ninth of Av will turn into joy and gladness and a cheerful feast for the house of Judah, because we will love truth and peace (Zec. 8:19).
I would like to conclude with paraphrasing the following two verses of Zecaraiah, so you can see the original meaning:
“The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us continue to go and seek the Faces of YHWA Lord of hosts. I myself will go also. Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the YHWA of hosts in Jerusalem and to seek the Faces of YHWA” (v. 21-22).