Blessing Our Work- Establishing Success- (March 2011)

In Parshas Pekudei Moses blesses the assembled People at the time they had successfully completed the construction of the Desert Sanctuary. In Haftaras Pekudei, Solomon blesses the people at the time of the dedication of the Temple. (I Kings 8:14) Sometimes we ask a blessing from God before we undertake a task and sometimes we offer a Blessing of Praise before enjoying some event or food. Very often, as in the examples from Parshas Pekudei, a blessing marks the successful completion of a task.

The blessing of Moses, according to many classical sources, is to be found recorded in Psalms 90 and 91. Both psalms are acts of worship and thanks to God and Psalm 90 ends with the words:

“May the beauty of my Master, our God be upon us
And the work of our hands established for us,
And the work of our hands, establish it.”
Psalm 90:17

Solomon’s blessing in I Kings:8 includes the words:

“And the Lord has established the word which he had spoken.”
I Kings 8:20
Both prayers speak of “establishment”, which is appropriate considering they mark the completion of a task of physical construction. The difference I note is that whereas Solomon is very much describing the fulfillment of a promise made to His father, David and one which he seems to regard as being “established”; Moses, on the other hand, is praying for a confirmation that the construction is truly established. In this it is not just a celebratory blessing for the completion of an event, it is also a prayer for the present and the future. A work in progress. I’ll return to this idea later.

A comparison of the two blessings (of Moses and Solomon) shows that they share one very significant factor: They are acts of praise which ask God’s blessing. They are not personal wishes for success or personal acts of congratulation. Neither of them makes the anointed person of the prophet, priest, or king functionally significant in the act of blessing.

It is revealing that in Solomon’s blessing for the people, he spends a rather long time recounting his own family history, a little on the history of the Nation, and he actually makes no requests or wishes at all; whereas the blessing of Moses (as “recorded” in Psalm 90) is heavily devoted to reflections on God Himself and is full of requests for His assistance for the Nation. According to Rashi, the specific blessing of Moses begins:

"May it be God's will that the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands,
and may the beauty of the Almighty our God be upon us..."
Rashi, Shmot 39:43 on Psalm 90

It ends with a formula begging God’s blessing in a request tellingly worded as a blessing for “us” not a blessing for “you”. And whereas Solomon’s focus is split between the Creator and the achievements of his own family in relation to Him, Moses is begging passionately for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and support for the whole Nation.

There is no ego in a Jewish blessing. The only one who can give a blessing is God Himself, and it is by praising Him that we bestow blessings on those we wish to encourage, thank, congratulate, assist, or commiserate with. If this is the case for anointed Messiahs like our biblical prophets and priests, how much more so must it apply to our prayers for others.

The kohanim (descendants of the temple priests) -when they are performing a community liturgical blessing- are a possible exception to this, because their act of blessing is a liturgical ritual which depends not on their person but on their function… but it is quite clear that they are merely enacting a “symbolic drama” representing the blessing of God which the Birkat Kohanim asks for. It is not a blessing by or from the priests themselves.

None can “administer” a blessing but God.

There are perhaps other cases when a blessing might be thought of as being “personally given”: when one is blessing one’s own children, or one’s spouse or closest friends, for example.. In those situations it is quite clearly the expression of an outpouring of personal love from parent to child, or from lover to beloved. But between even the most devoted of friends and between the most passionately united spouses, between leaders like Moses and the People of Israel… A Jewish blessing (of this kind)  is not ever really a personal blessing, it is always a prayer to God for His blessing. And that sort of blessing is one which anyone of us can wish and pray for. We do not need to be anointed kings, priests, or prophets.

So what is it that the blessing of Moses requests of God? I think the answer is “enduring success”. This is the “establishment” referred to in the Psalm text.

In the Psalm, Moses concludes:
“May the work of our hands be established for us
And the work of our hands, may it be established.”
Psalm 90:17

In other words, our human efforts and even our efforts undertaken in God’s Name are never complete without the confirmation and moment by moment sustenance which only God’s blessing can effect. This is the way our deeds become established and successful: even if they are not actually completed; even if they are very much “works in progress”.

The success we read about at the end of the Book of Exodus is not just to be found in the beautiful fabrics of the Tent of Meeting, nor just in the flashing metal and imposing stone of the Holy Temple. It is also to be found in the love, the generosity, the artistic craftsmanship, and the sheer hard work which the entire nation put in to make the creation of the Sanctuary and Temple according to God’s instructions. In Parsha Vayakhel we read that it is not just the work of the gifted and talented craftsmen that produced the beauty of the Mishkan but that it was built of the generosity and team-work of “all whose hearts were so stirred up, and everyone of willing spirit”. (Exodus 35:21). The memory and the echoes of that communal success are in our Torah and our liturgy. And they are not merely invoked in nostalgia, they are alive and enduringly active to this day.

This kind of success is also quite clearly enmeshed and woven into the structure and fabric of every spiritual task and mitzvah we undertake personally. It can even be found in our good intentions when we do not quite attain our goals, and it is just as bound up with our “failed” but whole-hearted attempts to do God’s will as it is with projects which can be judged by others as having been “successful” or “enduring”. As Solomon says of his father’s failure to build the Temple:

“But the Lord said unto David my father:
Whereas it was in your heart to build Me a house-
you did well that it was in your heart.”
I Kings 8:18

But it is our work as a community (not just as individuals) which will perhaps produce the most lasting success, and it is for this reason that the Blessing of Moses relates firmly to the needs of the entire Nation.  I am reminded of the concept of minyan which I was studying this week. I read this passage from the Talmud:

“--From where do we derive that the Shechinah is with a group of ten (minyan) praying? Because the verse in Psalm 82 says, "God stands with His assembly."

--From where do we derive that God is with two people when they study Torah together? Because the verse in Malachi 3 says, "Then the God-fearing people spoke, each one to their friend, and God listened.

--And from where do we derive that even when one person studies Torah, God is with him? Because the verse in Exodus 20 says, "In every place that My Name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you."
Talmud Bavli, Berachot 6a

Our rabbis state that if one of us is not doing their bit to the best of their ability- if just one nail or plank is missing from the Mishkan- then the entire structure may be in danger of collapse. At the very least, its “beauty” will be marred. Its construction will not be “a success”.

So- What is success?
The success which Moses prays for is that the “work of our hands be established”.

We plan. We build. We each raise our own emotional, intellectual, domestic, political and denominational edifices. We hope that what we do comes from a good impulse but we are always wary of our motivations and our actions as we know that it is only with God’s blessing that our work can succeed. Preserving a balance between dynamic activity and critical reflection is an art, a craft, and certainly a very great deal of hard work in itself.

We try to construct a Holy Temple in our spiritual lives and to extend its boundaries and its light further into the world around us. One can perhaps do this alone (if we are to take the Talmudic quote above seriously even one person can draw down the blessing of God) but our tradition is in universal agreement that our effectiveness in prayer is immeasurably more “potent” when prayer is undertaken in union with the community.

In whatever personal or community tasks which we are involved in, it may be that we only get to make “draft development ” plans. It may be that we are only present when the "foundations" are laid, or that we see the first attempts at construction fail and collapse before a more skilled set of planners and builders comes along. But “if the Lord builds the House”…in His way, and in His time…it will be established.

If we cannot finish a task we must be content with having done our little bit. David did not complete the Temple construction himself, yet even David’s thought was actually a praiseworthy deed.

Perhaps our work is a small seed that one day will grow- or perhaps we are each just one little half-shekel that is already “doing its bit” successfully in a small corner of the Heavenly Mishkan.

And who is the judge of true success anyway?
Not us.

May He establish the work of our hands and hearts.

N R Davies
March 3 2011