Religion & Beliefs


Two thousand six hundred years ago, they were laid to rest in their burial cave.  Over the years, family members placed gifts of pottery, silver and gold jewelry, glass bottles, oil lamps and amulets in a repository under a burial … Read More

By / September 2, 2009

Two thousand six hundred years ago, they were laid to rest in their burial cave.  Over the years, family members placed gifts of pottery, silver and gold jewelry, glass bottles, oil lamps and amulets in a repository under a burial bench in the cave.  Meanwhile, in the world of the living, the First Temple stood just a short walk from the tomb. King Josiah was on the throne, and Jeremiah was direly prophesying impending disaster for Jerusalem.  For his trouble, he was thrown into prison.  Nobody wanted to listen to a doomsayer.  Jerusalem had not yet been sacked and burned by the Babylonians, nor had the people been taken into exile.   Those bones and the gifts for the deceased remained intact in the burial caves throughout the destruction of the first and second temples, the 1,900 year Diaspora of the Jews and their return to the land.  Then, in 1979, a bored 13 year old boy on an archaeology dig knocked the floor of the cave with a hammer and revealed this 2,600 year-old treasure trove of over 1000 different items dating from the First Temple period.   This past week, watching the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy, I was suddenly reminded of those long-dead souls and that stash.  During Kennedy’s funeral service, the archbishop raised his hands and in English said, "May the Lord bless you and keep you.  May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." While obviously the Torah is sacred to Christians, I’d never heard the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly blessing which is found in the book of Numbers, as well as other places in the Bible, spoken within a Christian context before.  Undoubtedly, I haven’t been paying much attention.   Rather, I’m familiar with it from the Jewish world.  On Friday nights at the start of the Sabbath, Jewish parents use those exact words to bless their children.  In the upcoming month, we’ll hear the priestly benediction during the high holiday services when the kohanim, the priests, chant the blessing in synagogue on behalf of the congregation.  It’s almost exactly this same prayer for God’s blessings that was etched in the silver amulets that were found in Ketef Hinnom, the burial caves outside the Old City of Jerusalem.  That this prayer has been in use for a long time and is based in antiquity has always been known.  Traditional Judaism dates it, as well as the five books of Moses, to the Exodus (somewhere between 1440 BCE and 1200 BCE), when God gave Aaron this blessing to recite on behalf of the Israelites.  But how far back it can be traced incontrovertibly, with archaeological or extra-Biblical evidence to back it up, is another matter.  Until this discovery, the oldest known written version of the priestly blessing was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  No writings dating from the First Temple period that reference Biblical material had ever been uncovered.  I’m struck by what, based on these findings, one can infer about the actual historicity of the Torah, and I’m also moved by the fact that words endure, reaching across vast distances of time and place. But more than that, I’m somewhat surprised that these words were used by Jews as a talisman to protect their dead and to ask God to deal kindly with them on their way to Sheol.  A little research corroborates that post-biblical and medieval Jewish commentaries, including the Midrash Rabbah and Yalqut Shimeoni, associate this blessing with the dead and with the netherworld.  Most modern-day Jews of my acquaintance leave speculation and worries about the afterlife to Christians, and express a vague hope for the world to come.  In Judaism, there’s no elaborate system of heaven, hell, purgatory or limbo, nor are there special passwords or incantations that you need to get in.  This has always bothered me.  Not that I think anyone actually knows, but watching the Kennedy funeral, I could tell that many of them believed, were certain, that there was a plan for the next world. I’m as big a proponent as anyone of the importance of staying in the present moment, and concerning ourselves most with how we live our lives on earth, but let’s be honest.  We’re going to die.  Other people will die.  It is reasonable to hope that the God who blesses us in this world will continue to bless us in the next.  Thus, we write God a little note and place it with our dead.  Or, we say the words out loud in a cathedral.  But one way or another, we want God to hear these words which, after all, God authored in the first place.  The blessing aside, the silver amulets contain one of the earliest extra-Biblical mentions of the personal name for God, "YHWH".  When Moses asked God who he was, God replied "YHWH," (albeit in Hebrew), the meaning of which is some form of the present tense "to be."  I exist, or I am present.  That is, there was nothing before God, and God was not created by someone else.  In English YHWH is translated as "I am that I am."  With this personal God appearing three times in the priestly blessing, it is no wonder that it’s come to be used for the individual.  For this God is not just the God of a small, middle-eastern nation but also of each individual soul, from the Judahites in Jerusalem to the Kennedys of Boston.  It’s this God who is the source of all blessings, and who simply is.  Not just in this earthly existence, but beyond, God is present.