In 1979, archeologist Gabrielle Barklay set out on a routine dig outside of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. He was interested in uncovering evidence of activities that would take place outside of the ancient city of Jerusalem – quarrying of stones, military encampments, growing of vegetables, burials, roads and military watch towers. He enlisted a group of 12 and 13 year olds from a local club to help him. They started digging on a hill near St. Andrews Church in Jerusalem. They soon found remains of an ancient church and some graves. They found one bead in a grave; everything else had been looted. Underneath a bench in a burial chamber they found a nook. That nook needed to be cleaned so that it could be photographed.
Dr. Barklay needed to assign one of his charges to clean out the nook. He chose a boy named Nathan, who was always tugging at his shirt. He thought to himself that this was an ideal place to put Nathan, since he would be out of his hair for a while. To his surprise, Nathan cleaned the nook conscientiously. Then he started fooling with a hammer. Which as you might guessed, is usually not a good thing on an archeological dig. When Nathan banged at the bottom of the nook he has just cleaned, the bottom gave way — Nathan had found the entryway to a secret chamber. There were thousands of objects in the chamber including 125 objects of silver, 40 iron arrowheads, gold, ivory, glass, bone and 150 semi-precious stones. Everyone was sworn to secrecy. If word got out in Jerusalem about the find, masses of people would descend upon the site looking for treasures.
As the dig continued, a thirteen year old girl walked up to Dr. Barklay with something in her hand that looked like a purple cigarette butt. Later, another cylindrical object of about an inch long was found. Dr. Barklay suspected that these were amulets made of silver rolled into a scroll. If it was an amulet, perhaps something was written inside.
The contents of the tomb were eventually dated to the time of Jeremiah the Prophet, around 600 BCE. Whatever might be written on these amulets was very old indeed.
Now, one doesn’t just unroll a silver scroll that has been rolled up for 2600 years as it would disintegrate in your hands. The scrolls were sent to restoration experts in England, but they refused to work on the scroll for fear of destroying it. Then the scrolls were sent to experts in Germany, who also declined the invitation to work on the scrolls. Finally, experts from the Israel Museum agreed to try to unfurl the scrolls. It took them three years to develop a process to successfully unroll the small silver scrolls. When they did, they found Hebrew letters, which read as follows:
May G-d Bless You and Watch over You/ May G-d shine His Light upon You and be gracious to You/ May G-d lift His face to you and grant you Peace.
You will recognize this as the Priestly Blessing, the blessing that we recite at every bar and bat mitzvah at our synagogue. It is the custom of many families to use this blessing to bless their children at the Sabbath dinner table. This blessing has become part of our standard prayer service. This very blessing is found in this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Naso.
On our Congregational trip to Israel of May 2015 we saw the oldest manuscript of the Ten Commandments in existence. It was on display at the Israel Museum. That manuscript was 2000 years old. The blessing found on the silver scrolls were written six hundred years before that. As of today these silver scrolls contain the oldest Biblical passages ever found in writing.
I translate the first two words of the final line of this passage, “Yisah Adonai Panav Eliecha”, as “May G-d Smile Upon You.” Literally the passage reads, “May G-d Lift His Face Toward You”, but I believe that a “lifting of the face” — as opposed to a face-lift – means a smile. In either case, whether translated as “lifting your face” or smiling — there is a sense of asking G-d to acknowledge us individually. I once heard an objection to the idea that G-d pays attention to individuals. The person reasoned that G-d must be a very busy G-d – running the universe and being omnipotent and all – and so G-d can hardly have time to pay attention to each person on earth. Another person in the conversation responded that if the IRS can keep track of the income of 350 million Americans, surely G-d could watch over every single human being.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, relates a charming story that goes to the heart of this matter. A crowd of people are gathered on a hill by the sea to watch a great ship pass by. A young child is waving vigorously. One of the men in the crowd asks him why. He says, “I am waving so the captain of the ship can see me and wave back.” “But,” said the man, “the ship is far away, and there is a crowd of us here. What makes you think that the captain can see you?” “Because,” said the boy, “the captain of the ship is my father. He will be looking for me among the crowd.”
Rabbi Sacks concludes the story by saying, “That is roughly what we mean when we say, ‘May the Lord turn His face toward you.’ There are seven billion people now living on this earth. What makes us any of us more than a face in the crowd, a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the sea shore? — The fact that we are God’s children. God is our parent. He turns His face toward us. He cares.”
Yes, God smiles at us.