Joel Cohen's Question:

After meticulously describing the responsibilities for the grandsons of Kehot at the Tent of Meeting, G‑d tells Moses and Aaron to not let these families be "cut off" from among the Levites: "Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die when they approach the Holy of Holies. Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them every man to his work and his burden. But they shall not come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die."

The passage is curious. G‑d proposes, always, that we come closer to Him—but here He demands a conspicuous distance. He seems to want to create a "mystery" of an "Inner Sanctum": "Gaze At It And Die!"

The rabbis take it a strange step further. When the kohanim bless the congregation, the congregants are told to "look away," lest they be blinded by the Shechinah (Divine presence) that ostensibly passes through the kohen's parted fingers.

  • Are we supposed to believe that G‑d's Spirit – a Spirit He doesn't want us to approach, lest we die or be blinded – is located in the "sanctuary" of a kohen's fingers?
  • Isn't this our religion, both in the command to the Sons of Kehot and the priestly blessings, simply trying to create "mystery"?
  • And, in doing so, do the rabbis merely create a superstition?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

The mystery of G‑d is part of our religious experience. Maimonides tells us in his Guide for the Perplexed that it is impossible to describe G‑d. Therefore he chooses to tell us what G‑d "isn't" as a way to understand more about the nature of G‑d. In truth, Maimonides understands that to define G‑d would be to see G‑d in human terms thereby minimizing G‑d's ultimate power and transcendence.

With this background we can begin to answer your questions. G‑d's presence is indeed a mystery and the Torah is filled with laws and stories that strengthen this mystery. Beginning with the story of the Burning Bush, we get the impression that G‑d reveals only a piece of Himself to even the greatest of prophets. In the Anim Zemirot that many sing each Shabbat, we refer to a wonderful tradition that teaches that G‑d revealed only the back of His tefillin to Moses.

Yet, while G‑d is a mystery, He is also accessible and available. How else can we explain that fact that we are commanded to pray three times a day and to approach G‑d with our most personal requests and desires? The Torah at the beginning of the Book of Numbers reflects this tension between the transcendence and mystery of G‑d and the accessibility of G‑d. The kohanim are commanded to approach G‑d and if they do not approach G‑d they are punished. Yet, at the same time, they are warned about the risks of approaching G‑d.

The Priestly Blessing contains the same tension. The tradition teaches that G‑d's presence can be found between the fingers of kohanim as they bless the people. Yet, we are prohibited from looking at the kohanim. And, just in case we become tempted, the kohanim cover their hands with their tallit. G‑d is right there during the priestly blessing—yet, we are not allowed to see Him.

I believe that this tension does not create a superstition. Rather, it defines a religious struggle and tension that we feel as a Jewish community.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

This is not the first place that we find this "don't look here" admonition. In Exodus 24:9-11, the Torah records, "Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the G‑d of Israel... And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G‑d, and they ate and drank." The commentaries point out that the verse calls attention to the fact that "He did not lay His hand," indicating that they indeed deserved that a "hand be laid upon them"—because they gazed at Him with levity, while eating and drinking.

The basic reason for this is the irreverence of staring at the sacred, or, on a superficial level, an effort to create an enigma. But in truth, I believe that herein lies the yin and yang of a Jew's service of G‑d. Come close, but stay far. In the words of Ezekiel (1:14), "run and return."

The Jew is commanded to search for G‑d with all his soul, to desire to strip himself of all worldly wishes and gratification in an effort to "run" towards the Truth. But just before he completely rids himself of the burden of corporeality he is told to stop and "return." The purpose of the soul's descent into this world is to affect the material; not escape it. And then, once he is knee-deep in elevating the dirt of the farce we call materialism, he is told to "run" once again. Don't get too caught up in it, or you will be influenced instead of influencing.

This idea is expressed in the final passage of the fourth chapter of Avot (4:22): "Against your will you live; against your will you die." The soul searching to cleave to G‑d is instructed, "They shall not come in to see…lest they die"—against your will you live. And just as the Jew gets comfortable with his physical surroundings, he is torn away and told, "Seek My presence" (Psalms 27:8)—against you will you die, figuratively referring to the abandonment of the hubbub of Wall Street or Collins Ave. in an effort to discover the Divine.

What about the Kohen's hands?

First, a disclaimer. For all the skeptics who have taken a peek at the Kohen's outstretched fingers and not been blinded, the Talmud (Chagigah 16a) states that in the Holy Temple, where the priestly blessing was recited using G‑d's Ineffable Name, one was blinded if he dared look. Today – as explained in the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 128 – we are only forbidden to gaze intently at the Kohen's hands so as not to lose focus from the meaning of the words being recited—much as we are also proscribed from staring anywhere else during the blessing. But we don't even glance at the hands, to remind us of Temple times when we were forbidden to do so—though the same risk does not apply today.

And did the Shechinah actually reside on the hands of the Kohen when he recited the blessing? If the Shechinah is some sort of monster that blinds people, this may be hard to believe. If, however, Shechinah means a manifestation of G‑d's presence to a greater degree than is normally felt by the human, who is meant to work within a world where G‑d's presence is concealed, then gazing may blind him of his true mission down here. And as the spiritual always plays out in the physical too, he would be literally blinded as well.