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To Bless and Be Blessed

  • To Bless and Be Blessed

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat Naso contains several seemingly disparate sections of biblical legislation. It encompasses ritual purity, a sacrificial ritual for those who need to make restitution to another person, trial by ordeal for the suspected adulterous wife, vows of abstinence, and the order of sacrifices for the dedication of the Tabernacle. Tucked in among these in Numbers 6:24-27 is the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction. These fifteen words are recited in both synagogue and home rituals and are also found in Christian worship. A version of the Priestly Benediction, inscribed in silver, is perhaps the oldest biblical text ever discovered.

In Orthodox and some Conservative synagogues, the kohanim, priests, recite this benediction on the High Holidays and on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. (Leonard Nimoy based Mr. Spock's Vulcan greeting on the way the kohanim hold their hands during the recitation!) This benediction is also part of the parental blessing of children and is used at weddings as well as at b'nei mitzvah and brit milah ceremonies. Since the Reform Movement abandoned all vestiges of priestly privilege, it is rarely included in formal Reform worship. Nevertheless, many Reform rabbis use it regularly as a benediction.

The blessing consists of three sentences with three, five, and seven words, respectively. God's name (YHVH) appears three times, as the second word in each sentence. Forms of the word "you" appear six times. The other words describe six divine actions. Four of these involve blessing, protecting, being gracious, and giving peace. The other two divine actions are found in two clauses that sound similar: May God's countenance (literally, "face") shine upon us and be lifted up toward us. "Shine" is usually understood in terms of God being present with us as opposed to God hiding God's face. "Lifting" does not mean looking up, since that might imply that God is "below" us: It refers to an expression of benevolence rather than anger (a "fallen" face). When God looks at us, we hope God is pleased.

When Jews reflect on prayer, we do not immediately think about praying for others. We tend to think first about communal worship, in which we ask for God's blessing primarily in the first person plural for ourselves and for the community, for example, "Grant us peace..." or "Our God and God of our ancestors?." Into the relationship between God and us, the Priestly Benediction brings a third party in the form of kohanim, rabbis, and parents, who also invoke God's blessing for us.

For Further Discussion

  1. Can you identify some other instances in Tanach and Jewish practice during which one person blessed another?
  2. Have you ever blessed anyone? Have you ever been blessed? When? What words were used? What did the blessing mean to you then? What does it mean to you now?
  3. Offer an interpretation for the different "blessings" in the Birkat Kohanim. How does "bless" differ from "protect," etc.? Can you give an explanation for the way the three blessings are ordered?
  4. What does the person who receives the blessing gain? How does the person who invokes the blessing benefit?
It's All in the Doing
Davar Acher By: 
Renee Goldberg

When I was in high school, I worked for a year at Crabtree and Evelyn in a Boston mall. We were always busy, but during the holiday season the lines seemed to stretch forever. My role was to greet people at the door. One late Shabbat afternoon, just before Christmas, my rabbi and his wife walked into the store. I was shocked to see them, and without thinking, I blurted out, to my embarrassment, "Rabbi, what are you doing here? It's Shabbat!" Without a beat, he replied, "Goldberg, what are you doing working here? It's Shabbat. You think that because I'm a rabbi, I keep the rituals for you? You need to learn to be a Jew for yourself. I'm comfortable with my Shabbat observance. Are you?" That conversation, which took place over twelve years ago, changed the way in which I explore ritual practices.

In Parashat Naso, God tells Moses the laws concerning the nazirite, a man or woman who consecrates himself or herself to God by adhering to certain restrictions. (Numbers 6:1-21) The nazirite was not permitted to consume alcohol, eat any grape product, cut his or her hair, or have contact with a corpse. Although these laws are ascetic, a trait that Jews are not supposed to aspire to, we can learn from the nazirite. The root of the word nazir, nun zayim reish, means "to make separate" or "to separate oneself," much like the root of the word kadosh, kuf dalet shin, which, while in its basic sense means "to make holy," also has the connotation of separateness (in that something is considered holy when it is separated from the profane). When we make a commitment to learn about our Jewish tradition and practice Jewish rituals in whatever form we choose, we make ourselves separate and holy. We take responsibility for our Judaism, finding the right fit for ourselves. But as with everything else, we can't determine the fit without trying it on first.

Fulfilling mitzvot enriches our inner spiritual life. For example, keeping Shabbat, regardless of our level of practice, allows us to take a much-needed break from the everyday pressures of life to connect with our family, our community, and ourselves. Reciting the Sh'ma at bedtime or a blessing before eating reminds us of our relationship to God and the earth. We are part of a larger entity, and our Jewish rituals keep us grounded. Disengaging ourselves from mitzvot because "there is someone else who is doing them" or "we are Reform Jews" cuts us off from the potential to engage in a closer relationship with God and does us a personal disservice.

A Nike ad states, "Just do it." Our Torah says, Na-aseh v'nishma, "We will do and obey." (Exodus 24:7) However, I prefer to translate that commitment as "We will do so that we will understand." When we learn about and resolve to take on a ritual commandment, we make ourselves nun zayim reish, "separate," and kuf dalet shin, "holy." Rabbi Tanchuma says, "God said: Let one who has a bullock bring a bullock. Let one who has a ram bring a ram?. Let one who has a dove, bring a dove. Let one who has none of these things bring a flour offering. And let one who has no flour bring words." We all have something to offer, so let's just do it!

For Further Discussion

  1. What are some of the ways in which we can make Shabbat more meaningful?
  2. What is one new mitzvah that you and/or your family can add to your life/lives?
  3. How can you take time to do something spiritually enriching for yourself or those around you?

Suggested Reading

Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values, Yosef I. Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman, Golden Books, 1997.

Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842