Word of Torah: Pasrashat Naso
Written by: Rabbi Emily Segal
Our Torah portion this week, Naso, contains the threefold blessing we often refer to as the “priestly blessing.” We read,
“Adonai spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and to his sons and say, ‘Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May Adonai bless you and protect you!
May Adonai’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May Adonai bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace.’
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
In the ancient temple, the priests blessed the people with this blessing daily. Today, this is the blessing rabbis and cantors give to B’nai Mitzvah students after they are called to Torah and to a couple during their wedding; parents invoke it to bless their children on Erev Shabbat around the dinner table.
The Hebrew of this blessing grows with each of the three lines, each slightly longer than the one that precedes it; three words, then five words, then seven. And these words are translated and understood in many different ways; it is not unlikely that you would hear a slightly different translation of these words from any rabbi, cantor, or layperson who shares this blessing. The traditional commentators, too, had much to say about how these words of blessing should be understood.
Rashi (11th century French commentator) interpreted the first line to be about material possessions and wealth; “Bless you — that your possessions will be blessed; And protect you — that robbers not come upon you and take your money.” (Sforno, Italian 15th-16th century scholar, commenting on Rashi, notes that Jews need not be embarrassed to pray for material wealth as it can enable one to have a life of charity and study.) The second line Rashi understood to manifest in the way in which our shining, smiling faces bless one another, graced by God. The final line, Rashi interpreted as a prayer for a world of ease in which all things we experience as God’s wrath no longer exist and are replaced by wellbeing.
Numbers Rabbah (traditional Midrash on the book of Numbers) builds upon Rashi’s teaching, understanding the first line to mean “May God protect you from being corrupted by the attainment of material blessing.” Numbers Rabbah also identifies God’s shining face of the second line of blessing as referring to “the light of the Torah; God will enlighten your eyes and heart in Torah.” Regarding the final line, K’tav Sofer (Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg, 19th century) taught that God’s ability to grant us peace depends first upon our actions: “Peace begins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to all the world.”
What rich words, deepened and made even more holy through new understandings developed over millennia of Jewish thought.
Reading these words each year, we have the opportunity to see them with new eyes. How striking that the ability to bless was given to human beings, to the priests; by extension — as we are a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” to us. We have the power to share words of blessing and to bring blessing to others. We do not have to wait and silently pray; we can open up our eyes, open up our hands and give blessing to others. God did not simply tell the priests to bless the people. What if they did not have inspiration to find the words? God gave them beautiful words to use, to remove any impediment to the act of blessing. Rabbi Tzi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (early 19th century, in his Agra D’kalah) taught that God gave the priests the words of blessing so that “No priest should ever say, ‘What good is my blessing? I don’t know the words. I cannot bring blessing down from God just through my intentions and hope for unification!’ Thus, God gave the words. Just speak the words, as the Creator commanded you.”
Use these words, or use other words; it does not matter. Let us allow this Torah portion to teach us to bless others. We bless others when we thank them for kindness or hard work. We bless others when we share words of appreciation with them. We bless others by sharing with them what is in our hearts rather than keeping them at arm’s distance. We bless others by embracing them, physically and emotionally. We bless others when we send kindness to them and express our wish that they will be granted wholeness and peace. Blessing is an act of love.
The Zohar highlights the idea of blessing as an act of love. “It is taught, any priest who the people do not love shall not spread his hands in blessing … Any priest who does not love the people, or who is not beloved of the people shall not spread his hands and bless the people, as Scripture says, ‘The generous man is blessed’ (Proverbs). We read this instead to say, ‘The generous man, he shall bless.’”
Let us each strive to bless others in our words and with our deeds in the coming week, knowing that blessing is an act of generosity and love.