Naso 5779 – The Priestly Blessing

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Parashah Naso has 176 verses and is the longest parashah in the torah.  One of its most moving passages, and the one that has had the greatest impact over the course of history, is very short and is known by almost every Jew.  It is the Priestly Blessing. This is among the oldest of all prayer texts.   It is in this Torah portion that God dictates the priestly blessing to Moses who is to teach it to Aaron and his sons, the kohanim. It is said today by the kohanim in the reader’s repetition of the Amida in Israel every day and in most of the diaspora only on festivals. It is used by parents as they bless their children on Friday night. It is often said to the bride and groom under the chuppah.

Traditionally, it is interpreted as a blessing for physical well-being and sustenance. These three blessings nourish our relationship with God and represent the arc of our spiritual climb. First, we serve God, then we know God, and finally we rise to the pinnacle of unification with God.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that what gives these verses their power is their simplicity and beauty. They have a strong rhythmic structure. The lines contain three, five, and seven words respectively. In each, the second word is” the Lord”. In all three verses the first part refers to an activity on the part of God –” bless”,” make his face shine”, and” turn his face toward”. The second part describes the effect of the blessing on us, giving us protection, grace and peace.

One interpretation of the first verse is: May the Lord bless you with material wealth and protect you from losing that wealth, for material blessings are vulnerable to loss. Or another is may God protect you from being corrupted by attainment of material blessing. This is probably more relevant for many political leaders and some religious leaders who are falling prey to the increasing temptations and dangers of corruption in our society. It may also mean:  May God bless you according to your needs – blessing the student with intelligence, the businessman with business acumen.  Sforno notes that Jews need not be embarrassed to pray for material wealth, which can make a life of charity and study more attainable.  God’s blessings are as varied as our individual needs.

The second verse,” May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you,” refers to moral blessing. Grace is what we show to other people and they to us. It is interpersonal. Here we are asking God to give some of his grace to us and others so that we can live together without the strife and envy that can so easily poison relationships.

For the author of the Midrash, the second line of the blessing is a prayer for the light of wisdom and knowledge of Torah. Unlike wealth, they require no protection to prevent them from being stolen. The second half of the second blessing adds the words” may the divine presence deal graciously with you”. The attributes of graciousness and loving kindness and mercy are essential if we are to live moral lives. They will enable us to be more fully human; they help us care for of the underprivileged in our communities; they will help us relate to all human beings with a greater understanding and compassion.

The third blessing is the most inward of all the blessings.” May the Lord turn his face toward you.” There are 7 billion people on the face of the Earth. What makes us anything more than a face in the crowd? The fact that we are God’s children. He is our parent. He turns his face towards us. He cares.

The third blessing is looked at as the Lord’s compassion above and beyond what we deserve, as expressed by the forgiveness of sin and giving peace.

In English, peace connotes absence of war. It can also describe a state of tranquility. But the peace of God in the priestly blessing embraces even more aspects of life. It includes good health, security, inner harmony, wellness, material prosperity, and long life. But if we don’t have peace is hard to enjoy it all. This is a peace that is with us in good times and bad. The broad and rich meaning of peace in the priestly blessing reinforces the role of holiness in the life of Israel. It brings about both social and physical health.

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon interpreted the priestly blessings in an interesting way- like parenthood: “May God bless you and protect you”. God is taking care of us, above us, and we are below, like a parent taking care of a child.” May God cause His face to shine upon you, and may God be good to you.” Here, God is shining His face at you, from the same level as you. We have become equals with God. The parent and child are now peers. This verse makes me imagine seeing my children grown and standing, looking at them eye to eye, being independent people, debating with me.” May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.” The directionality here is most clear. God is looking up to us, up at us, as an aging parent looks up to an adult child, admiring of everything our grown child has become, we hope. Yet the parent still has wisdom to impart.”

We matter as individuals because God cares for us as a parent for a child. That is one reason why the priestly blessings are all in the singular, to emphasize that God blesses us not only collectively but also individually.

As mentioned, clergy do not have sole title to the Birkat kohanim. Parents recite it when blessing their children at the Shabbat dinner table. Indeed, this may be the most spiritually gratifying utilization of these words. Kids today are not accustomed to being blessed by their parents. Hugs are in, as are high-fives. Blessings are something else. One sees a special impact of a blessing when parents introduce the brief ritual into their Shabbat home observance. We have seen it with our own grandchildren. The blessed children radiate a special glow that is assuredly a reflection of God’s presence.

This is precisely the intended effect of the priestly blessing. The Torah offers this explanation for why God commands the priest to pronounce it:” Thus they shall link my name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them”. In word and deed, and in bestowing an ancient blessing at important times in people’s lives, all of us can help make God’s presence felt in the world around us

The Jewish day is punctuated with the recital of a variety of blessings. The Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof said: “There truly is a blessing for everything.” These blessings serve a variety spiritual purposes to praise God as the source of all goodness, to ask permission to eat God’s food and say” thank you” and to bring God’s blessing into the world.

But what is a blessing? We can easily agree that it is a very positive thing, but when we try to pin down the concept of blessing to a definition, it suddenly seems surprisingly difficult.

Blessings are short statements that express gratitude for something. But a blessing is not merely to show gratitude. The purpose of the blessing is awareness.  A blessing is an expression of hope.

There are three main types of blessings. First, there are blessings we make over something we enjoy with our senses. The most common ones are blessings over food. We take a moment to pause and reflect on where this pleasant experience comes from and use it to channel Godliness into the world. The second kind of blessing is for Commandments. Jews consider the Torah to be the greatest gift of all, and the act of performing a mitzvah is an act of channeling divine energy into our mundane world. The third kind of blessing are blessings of experience. They are called” blessings of sight” or” of hearing,” but can also be designated as blessings of awe.  These are the blessings we recite when we see or hear something that reminds us of God’s presence in the world.

So, what does it mean to be a blessing? Hanan Schlesinger says it is when God blesses us and then we must pass blessings along. We ought never to hoard his blessings for ourselves. God gives life, and light, and sustenance and hope, and so must we give these blessings to others as well. Blessings are not meant to flow into us, but rather flow through us.

As the kohanim transmitted God’s blessings to the Israelites, we, too, must transmit God’s blessings to all people. To bless others is to serve as conduits of God’s blessing, God’s generosity, and God’s light. Blessing opens a channel for holiness to enrich the lives of both the blessers and the blessed.

How can you be a blessing? With a smile or a hug; by always thinking of giving, of helping, of lending a hand; by offering an invitation instead of waiting to receive one; by opening up to a stranger, by making someone feel at home; by teaching and helping others to learn; by offering insight and inspiration; by encouragement or kind word. It is not hard to find ways to be a blessing – you just have to constantly be aware of it.  May we all be constantly aware of it.