Friday, May 17, 2013

Naso: On PIckup Trucks And The Blessings We Miss.

So the other day I’m driving into the office and I’m behind a pickup truck, the kind that clearly gets used as a pickup truck. In other words, this isn’t a squeaky clean vanity vehicle or ersatz SUV; there’s wracks with equipment, piles of stuff, and years of grit on this truck. It’s the kind of truck that is often idealized in our culture of independence and personal can-do spirit; the kind of truck you’d picture a Louis L’amour character driving if no horses were available.

So I’m behind this truck, and I notice a bumper sticker. It says, “yes, this is my truck, and no, I won’t help you move.

Yes, it’s just a bumper sticker. Yes, it’s meant to be funny, to be snarkey—that particular blend of sarcasm and entertainment. And yet, this bumper sticker made me sad. Is this what we’ve come to? I thought to myself. Those of us who have ability, who should be among the first to offer help, are now refusing, because being asked to help is annoying.

The answer is, of course, yes. Barring a crisis, our focus is nearly entirely on ourselves. Or, as David Foster Wallace said before his death, “everything in [our] own immediate experience supports [our] deep belief that [we] am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. “ That, he writes, is our default position; that everyone else is merely in the way, an annoyance, in our way. You can find that speech, by the way, in the form of a short film called “This is Water” on Youtube.

Is it? Does that have to be our default position? Must we fail again and again to recognize and help each other, instead of thinking only of ourselves?

The answer is, sadly, probably. But we are given opportunities to break out of that rut, to realize what we’re doing and to have at least a moment of self-correction. This week’s portion describes the act by the Priest of blessing the people Israel; we’ve seen Aaron bless the Israelites but never had a formula for the blessing. Here we have it presented and we know this blessing well—it’s birkat Kohanim, sometimes called birkat shalom, the priestly benediction, a text that was powerful enough that archeologists have found medallions and amulets with the text of it in graves around Jerusalem dating to the early second temple period at least. But then, after giving the blessing, the text continues: “And they [the priests] shall put my name upon the people Israel; and I will bless them.”

What does that even mean “They shall put my name upon the people Israel”? How is God blessing the people if the priest just did the job? The Rabbis of old suggest the answer is in how we see the priest. Is it the priest’s blessing? What if the priest is lousy at his job? What if you’ve just had a fight with him? What if you doubt his integrity? In other words, what if you experience the priest as we experience the people around us; that is, he’s in our way? He’s the dopey guy in front of us in the checkout line, he’s the petty bureaucrat or clerk who makes us redo the form because of a typo, the one who wants to borrow our truck to help him move.  None of that, the Rabbis suggest, is relevant. To quote the Talmud, “For the Holy One, blessed be God, says: "Who blesses you? Am not I the one who blesses you, as it is written: "Let them place My name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them?”

The priest, therefore, becomes the vessel of the blessing, not the provider of blessing. The priest is klei kodesh, a holy vessel, and surely, as Rashi suggests, should give the blessing with due reverence and feeling, with appropriate kavvanah. But it’s not about the Priest. It’s about connecting with the sacred, with what is holy. And what does it mean to connect with the holy? It means having an awareness—having God’s name placed on the people—and waking up to the reality that, while we may be the protagonist in our own narrative, we are also not the center of the universe, those around us are not in our way, do not exist to be mere annoyances. No, they are klei kodesh, vessels of holiness, just like us, but only when we open ourselves to the possibility that we may receive a blessing from them; that our encounters need not be meaningless and aggravating, but full of potential.

In the end, Wallace reminds us that it’s our choice, how we want to encounter the world; do we want to see the world as filled with people who merely want to get in our way, borrow our stuff, or do we want to see others as bestowers of blessing, vessels of holiness? Certainly the latter is harder; it’s much easier to see ourselves as essential and others as inconsequential. Perhaps, even in our better moments, we won’t be successful. But then sometimes we will be, we will recognize that we are the ones in the way, not them. And because of that, I would argue that choice is the most consequential choice we make, for it gives us opportunities to be the kinds of people we want to be, the kind God wants us to be, and reminds us that the blessing is around us and open to us, even in the simple act of borrowing—or lending out—a truck. 

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