The Hierarchy of Needs and Priestly Benedictions


"May God bless you and protect you. May the light of God's face shine toward you and show you favor. May God look upon you with favor and grant you peace." This threefold Priestly Benediction, which appears in this week's parshah, has played a central role in Jewish ceremony because it articulates our most basic and highest aspirations.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow formulated a hierarchy of levels of need, from the most fundamental to the highest — spiritual fulfillment. Each level assumes that all lower levels are met. At level one are bodily needs: food, clothing, shelter. At level two are security needs: protecting what we have. At level three are social needs: being a part of a group where we give and receive love. At level four are ego needs: gaining knowledge and competence and producing achievements to satisfy our needs for respect. At level five are self-fulfillment needs: realizing our potential for growth and yearning for a sense of well-being.

Maslow's formulation has a remarkable correspondence to the Priestly Benediction, which also has an ascending order. It starts with the satisfaction of bodily needs and peaks with shalom, well-being. However, there is a significant difference between Maslow and the Torah.

Maslow views the movement through the levels as achieved solely by human effort. The Torah views the blessings that enrich human life as emanating from God.

Level One in the Priestly Benediction is expressed in "May God bless you." This blessing refers to the material items that support existence. Without them we cannot advance any higher.

Level Two — guarding against loss — is expressed by "May God protect you." All blessings require protection against loss. But there is an additional moral perspective in Judaism. The phrase expresses the hope that we will be protected not only from loss and harm but from the emotional damage possessions might cause.

Level Three — the need to belong to a community and to give and receive love and friendship — is reached through the communal setting in which the Priestly Benediction is recited.

Level Four — the drive for knowledge, competence and achievement and respect — is addressed with the third and fourth statements: "May the light of God's face shine toward you and may God show you favor." God's light means the enlightenment that comes from Torah study. "May God show you favor" means that when our sacred learning leads to trustworthy behavior, others will show respect and say: "He/she is a sheyne mensch, a beautiful person." Thus we will be favored with a good reputation.

Level Five — living up to our potential for growth and yearning for a sense of well-being — is the highest level in Maslow's hierarchy and corresponds to the final verse in the Priestly Benediction: "May God look upon you with favor and grant you peace."

Since each blessing goes beyond the previous one, how does God's looking upon us with favor go one step higher than the light of God's face shining upon us? The shining of God's light upon us means acquiring Torah knowledge. God's looking upon us with favor indicates God's bestowal of peace.

From a human perspective, it means we would have reached the level where we live up to our relationship with God. If indeed we are living up to our godlike nature, we will experience a sense of well-being because we feel God's presence in our lives.

Rabbi Fred Davidow, chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home, also conducts educational programs at Continuing Care Retirement Communities. Email him at: [email protected]


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