In 1979, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University were excavating some rock-hewn burial chambers in an area called Katef Hinnom, just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Inside one of these caves they found two tiny silver scrolls. They contained the oldest known surviving fragment of Biblical text, dating from immediately before the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in the year 442 BCE.
It took the archaeologists three years to carefully unravel the scrolls in order to prevent their complete disintegration.
When they eventually managed to do so, they discovered that the words written on them were fragments of the Priestly Blessing in this week’s sedrah: ‘May God bless you and guard you. May God illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you. May God make His countenance shine upon you and grant you peace’ (Numbers 6: 25-26).
It is clearly inspiring to pull a biblical text out of the ground in Jerusalem that is instantly recognisable 2,500 years later.
But there is another obvious conclusion from this remarkable discovery.
The words of the priestly blessing, recited by the Kohanim on festivals, and traditionally given at key life-cycle moments such as a bar or batmitzvah and on a wedding day, have a deep connection to the Jewish soul.
They have inspired us across many millennia, as evidenced by the two tiny silver scrolls from Jerusalem.
One reason for this may be because they refer to all aspects of life, both material and spiritual.
The first blessing relates to material needs and prosperity. It is a prayer for both success and protection in a physical sense.
The second blessing, with its reference to the ‘illumination’ of God’s countenance, is a prayer for spiritual guidance, and an ability to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah.
The third and final blessing is a prayer for God’s compassion, as expressed through forgiveness and the granting of peace.
The conclusion of the priestly blessing contains an exceptionally powerful message.
One may possess both material and spiritual gifts. But without the blessing of peace – understood in its fullest sense, as a state of total harmony between all competing forces, whether within a person, a family or the wider world – then none of life’s other blessings can be truly appreciated.
May we all merit to enjoy this ultimate blessing in life.
Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish community