Let the Blessings Flow

Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89

D'Var Torah By: Beth Ellen Young

Talking about God can be complicated, especially when, like me, you don't always know what you believe. One tradition I use as a parent to help give my children a sense of spirituality can be found in this week's Torah portion, Naso. This portion highlights everyone's ability to be a K'lei Kodesh, or sacred vessel, by blessing others and thus receiving God's blessing ourselves.

In this week's Torah portion, Naso, we find the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24-26), with which the priests are to bless the people of Israel.

May God bless you and protect you!
May God deal kindly and graciously with you!
May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace! (Num 6:24-26)

Jacob Milgrom, referenced by Robert Alter in his Numbers commentary, describes the three clauses as "embodying 'a rising crescendo of three, five, and seven words.'" With the beauty of these words, and the imagery they evoke, the sentence following them could go overlooked.

"And they shall set My name over the Israelites and I Myself shall bless them." (Num 6:27)

It seems that the priests here are God's helpers in enabling God's holiness to reach the people. What might this helper role of the priests be called? The Torah offers a wonderful answer - K'lei Kodesh, or "sacred utensils," a term introduced in last week's portion (Num 3:31). The priests are the tools of holiness that bring God's blessing to the people. It is in this vein that some congregations refer to their senior leadership as K'lei Kodesh - sacred utensils who help the community receive blessing. Today, anyone can be K'lei Kodesh and help bring God's holiness into the world. That is powerful. And, by serving as a "sacred utensil," we are also receiving God's blessing.

Today, clergy and educators often include these ancient words of blessing as they mark joyful lifecycle moments: blessing a family who has welcomed a child, blessing b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah) on the bima, or blessing couples under the wedding chuppah. The language of this verse is strikingly intimate. This intimacy with the Divine and this ability to act as God's helper is not limited to the priests, the rabbis, or the elite. Jewish tradition places these sacred words in the mouths of every parent as part of the weekly practice of blessing one's children on Shabbat.

This was not a tradition with which I grew up, yet it is one I have come to embrace with my own children. My beliefs and feelings about God can change from day to day, but I know that I want my children to experience awe and have a sense of spirituality. Through saying the Priestly Blessing, I, like the priests of the Torah, am helping to bring God's blessings to them.

"I Myself shall bless them" (Num 6:27), says God. The Hebrew is imprecise. "Them" could refer to the Israelites, i.e., God will bless the Israelites with the partnership of the priests. Or, "them" could refer to the priests, i.e., the priests will bless the Israelites and God will bless the priests. Ibn Ezra, a commentator in the Middle Ages, reconciles the two interpretations with the expansive statement, "In my opinion, it refers to both."

When any of us offer these sacred words from the Torah, we are both enabling God's blessing for someone else and receiving God's blessing ourselves.

I encourage experimenting with saying the Priestly Blessing as part of one's weekly Shabbat practice. It needn't be limited to parents/guardians and children. I love Dr. Emily Aronoff's Family Blessing Song which includes a verse where children bless their parents/guardians. At many of our URJ summer camps, counselors bless campers. In some congregations, worshippers are encouraged to bless whoever is near them. How empowering it is to be able to bring more blessings into the world and know that in doing so we are also receiving them!

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