In an episode from season two of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian vision of a future run by Biblical precepts, one of the central characters blesses a baby using the words of the Priestly Blessing: “May God watch over you and protect you. May God shine God’s countenance upon you and grant you comfort. May God lift God’s face to you and grant you peace.”
As Margaret Atwood conceived of it in her 1985 novel by the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a society called Gilead where babies are hard to come by and love is as well. Filled with terror and torture, the series is not for the faint of heart, making the use of a blessing we often use in our most meaningful rituals all the more shocking.
But perhaps we have forgotten to look at the actual context of the blessing in the Torah itself. In this week’s Torah portion Naso, near the end of the sixth chapter of Numbers, the Priestly Blessing comes almost directly after one of the clearest examples of misogyny in the Torah; that of the wife accused of adultery, or sotah. Here, the woman in question is forced in public drink a bitter potion that will determine her fate. Like the Salem witch trials millennia later, a man’s uncontested grievance could have grave consequence.
Atwood was not wrong in the dangers presented by our texts in moments of societal upheaval. In the Talmudic tractate dedicated to the sotah, the rabbis provide protection from the ritual in the form of needed witnesses and other such safeguards, but were they enough? We must weigh all these things – both the beauty and the pain – as we struggle to make sense of our past. Do we forgive? Do we forget? Do we ignore? Or as in the case of the Priestly Blessing, do we preserve? Women, all these years later, still suffer abuse, assault, and neglect without proper protection in many areas of the world including our own. Perhaps, I should keep this in mind next time I recite it Priestly Blessing. I will recite it not just for those gathered in the room, but for the sotah as well. May we one day redeem the world from such terrible communal practices.