Naso 5781 – Priestly Blessing: We Need a New Translation

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

In today’s parashah, we find the ancient and very famous Priestly Blessing. For those of you who would like to refer to it during my D’var, it is Ch 6, v. 23-25 on Pg 804 in Etz Chaim.Truthfully, after all these years, I think its translation needs to be . . . freshened up a bit.

History – An amulet found in 1979 appears to be among the oldest Biblical texts ever found. It was apparently on a silver scroll that was only an inch or so long. I’m not exactly sure of how the scroll was rolled, but it took three years before archaeologists could finally agree on how to unroll it without having it disintegrate. It dates back to the sixth century BCE – the days of Jeremiah, during the first temple period.The scroll is several hundred years older than the other Dead Sea Scrolls, and is on display in the Israel Museum.

The traditional recitation. During the repetition of the amidah, when the blessing is part of the liturgy, the kohaneem gather in front of the congregation. Their hands are washed by the levites, they remove their shoes and they cover their heads and hands with their tallit. The procedure by which the Priestly Blessing is conferred is also called a duchanning, for the duchan, or platform from which it is performed.

The Kohen raises his hands, with the palms facing downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touching. The four fingers on each hand are customarily split into two sets of two fingers each (thus forming the letter Shin (שׁ), an emblem for Shaddai, “Almighty [G-d]”), while the kohaneem do not look at the congregation and vice-versa.

This Jewish ceremony is sometimes called Nesiat Kapayim, the “lifting of the hands.” Tradition states the Divine Presence would shine through the fingers of the priests as they blessed the people, and no one was allowed to look at the shin out of respect for God

The hands are covered by their tallit. The prayer leader melodically chants the words and the kohaneem repeat it.

There are all sorts of restrictions. For instance, a kohen is not to participate if he is under the influence of alcohol.

What the words mean: my contention is this: With other verses in the Torah, we’re told that there is no redundancy. No words are wasted. But at first glance, it appears that there may be some repetition here. If you look at pg. 804 in Etz Chaim, the translation of the first portion of all three verses seem to present some repetition. Bless you, deal kindly with you, bestow his (??) favor upon you. The translation and commentary leave me wanting better explanations. We can and should do better! So without changing things too much, I have my own interpretation that give the entire blessing more meaning. So here are the three verses, six components, each of which is distinct because this is, after all, the Torah.

Now, who am I to offer what I think is a better alternative to this and other sources? As with other many other commentaries of mine, I’m a bit of an outlier, so this will come as no surprise. And I have it on good authority that Gd loves this sort of stuff (Pirkei Avot 5:19 – arguments for the sake of heaven). So here goes.

First verse. Yiverechecha ad’ai v’yishmerecha. May Gd bless you and protect you. What does it mean to bless someone? Does it involve mainly tangible gifts, as is typically what is meant when said in a Biblical context? Is it a hope for other good things to happen? Haven’t we all had blessings and curses? For some time, it has been exasperating to me, and makes little sense. It makes more sense when someone says, “You have been a blessing to me.” OK – I understand that to mean that you have been something good in my life. Fine. But to confer a blessing on someone? What does that even mean?

So given that we all have been blessed and that we have all been, in some measure, cursed, I’ve come up with slightly different wording. With all due apologies to Moses, who I think may have misremembered what he heard Gd say, how about, “May you be shown Gd’s blessings.” That is, may you recognize them. Appreciate them. Too many people spend too much time griping about the bad things that happen to them and don’t take proper time to give thanks for the good things that have been bestowed on them. And to take that time would make one much happier and more content. It would help keep the bad stuff in its proper perspective.

And what about, “and protect you.” From what? Maybe from being harmed. So here it is:

May you appreciate Gd’s blessings and may Gd protect you from harm.

A little wordy, perhaps, but it gets to the true meaning, at least for me. If you can simplify it further, please let me know.

Second verse. Ya’er ad’ai ponov ailecha v’yichunecha. May Gd deal kindly and graciously with you. Kind – I read a real mishmash of stuff about what this means. Given that redundancy is to be avoided within a verse and between verses, we must get to a distinction from “blessing” here.

Of the many emails I have received since the announcement of my retirement, the ones of which I’m most proud – the ones I would show my parents (a good guide, no?) are the ones that recount my kindness to an elderly parent or spouse. The time I took with them when they were ill. Of course, I’m going to know how to treat a heart attack, but showing kindness and having it be appreciated . . . those notes were the most touching to me. So how about this: “May Gd show you kindness.” That is, yes, be kind to you, but also, show you what kindness is; demonstrate it, so it will be apparent to you and you can then emulate it and be kind to others.

And the second part. Deal graciously with you. To me, grace here means divine mercy. We all screw up. In this blessing, we are simply asking that Gd realizes that good people sometimes make mistakes, and we are asking for Gd’s grace in dealing with us. For the whole verse, I like,

May Gd show you kindness and be gracious to you.

Third verse. Yisor ad’ai ponov aelecha v’yosem l’cha shalom. May Gd show you favor and grant you peace. Show you favor. Pretty simple. May Gd be good to you. And peace. What does this mean? Maybe contentment. For the blessing, maybe the word “peace” will do. I don’t think I would change a thing there. And what a nice way to end the D’var.

May Gd show you favor and grant you peace.  Amen.  Shabbat Shalom