“With the L-rd as Our Partner”
(Updated and revised from Shemini 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini, opens with a description of the eighth and final day of the consecration ceremony of Aaron and his sons. This day, that was expected to be the highpoint of Aaron’s life, was suddenly turned into a day of great tragedy for Aaron when his two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, died because they brought a strange fire upon the altar.

In Leviticus 9, the Torah describes in great detail, the various rituals that were part of the ceremony of consecration. As the ceremony reached its crescendo, the Torah reports, Leviticus 9:22: וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת יָדָו אֶל הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם, Aaron raised his hands towards the people and blessed them. According to tradition, for the first time, Aaron pronounced the priestly blessings that are found in Numbers 6:24-27. Our commentators note that although this blessing was not yet recorded in the Torah, the formula had already been taught to Moses who in turn taught it to Aaron.

In Leviticus 9:23 the Torah records that, following Aaron’s blessing, Moses joined Aaron in the Tent of Meeting. They then went out together and blessed the people. At that point, the glory of G-d appeared before the entire people.

While some Torah commentators contend that the blessing referred to in verse 23 was really the tripartite priestly blessing, the Sifra  and Torat Cohanim, Miluim 9, cited by Rashi, maintain that it was an entirely different blessing. Says the Sifra: Moses said: “May it be G-d’s will to cause His shechina (Divine Presence) to rest on the work of your hands! May the L-rd, the G-d of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!” The people then responded: “May the favor of the L-rd be upon us; let all that we put our hands to prosper, O prosper the work of our hands.”

These words of response by the people may be found in Psalm 90:17, a psalm whose authorship is ascribed to Moses. It is the psalm that is recited as part of the conclusion of the Saturday evening service, in which, in effect, Jews pray that the works of their hands in the coming week may be blessed.

A story is told of a young, enthusiastic, Minister who arrived at his new church only to find the building in complete disrepair–the walls in danger of collapse, the paint peeling and the garden littered with thistles, thorns and shards of glass. With great zeal, the young Minister mobilized the congregants to begin repairing and repainting the chapel. After much effort, the building was now sparkling, and glory had returned to the sanctuary. The church’s gardens however, the Minister left for himself. Every Sunday, at the conclusion of services, the Minister would change from his Sunday finest to begin toiling in the garden. By the end of spring, the garden was in full bloom–a glorious sight to behold.

One Sunday afternoon, as the Minister was laboring in the church’s garden, a congregant approached and complimented him on the beauty of the gardens. “The L-rd must surely be your partner!” he said to the Minister. The priest looked up, flattered by the compliment, but said to the congregant wryly, “Yes, the L-rd surely is my partner, but you should have seen this garden when my partner took care of it!”

When Moses and Aaron blessed the people and prayed that G-d should cause His Divine presence to rest on the work of the people’s hands, he understood the nature of the Divine-human partnership. The Al-mighty may bring the rain, but if His human partners do not plant the seeds, nothing will grow. The Al-mighty may make the sunshine, but if we do not remove the weeds, the healthy flowers cannot flourish.

How beautifully the Psalmist in chapter 127:1 expresses how essential G-d’s help is, by saying: אִם השׁם לֹא יִבְנֶה בַיִת, שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ, Unless the L-rd builds the house, they that build it, labor in vain. Unless the L-rd watches the city, the watchmen who guard it, guard it in vain.

As the philosophers are eager to point out, G-d, the Prime Cause, makes all of human achievement possible, but, unless the human partners perform their assigned roles, not much will happen.

This is what is alluded to in that very famous dangling participle found in the verse from Genesis 2:3, recited every Friday night in the Shabbat Kiddush:
G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He abstained from all His work which G-d created to make. אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱ־לֹקִים לַעֲשׂוֹת, which G-d created to make–say the rabbis,  refers to the fact that G-d created the world, but it was left for His human partners “to make”–to finish the act of creation and to perfect the world.

And so, to paraphrase the words of the Sifra attributed to Moses: May it be G-d’s will to cause His Divine Presence to rest upon the work of our hands. May our Divine talents be used to bring perfection in this world. May G-d be our partner, and may we truly become G-d’s partner.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.